Zappala seeking review of evidence in robbery cases

Goal is to protect integrity of prosecutions

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is seeking permission from the courts to force law enforcement officers who want to charge a suspect with robbery to have the evidence reviewed by his office before filing the paperwork.

The goal, he said, is to protect the integrity of prosecutions.

“This is a component of the implementation of the integrity unit,” Mr. Zappala said. “It’s not something that should be negatively viewed.”

Under Pennsylvania law, the prosecutor in each county can require pre-approval as is being suggested by Mr. Zappala, since the ultimate charging decisions rest with the elected district attorney.

In the certification request, which will also cover carjackings, Mr. Zappala said a long-range goal of his office is to use attorney-review in all cases. It is already used for homicides, felony sexual assaults, elder abuse and crimes against children.

Local law enforcement agencies did not seem to be troubled by the idea.

Whitehall Chief Donald Dolfi said he could not yet comment on behalf of the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs’ of Police Association, for which he serves as chairman of the executive board.

His department sees only two or three robberies each year, if it has any at all. For Whitehall, Chief Dolfi said, the policy would make little difference.

“As long as the district attorney’s office has staff available to consult with and go over what we have ... then that can potentially be an assistance,” Chief Dolfi said. He compared the pre-approval system to one often used by local federal agencies, who consult heavily with the U.S. Attorney’s Office while conducting investigations.

Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said Wednesday the department had no comment. But Officer Howard McQuillan, president of the Pittsburgh police union, anticipated the change would have little effect on their department.

“Every warrant that the city of Pittsburgh police department gets has to be approved through the DA’s office. Whether it’s a robbery, whether it’s a domestic, it doesn't matter,” Officer McQuillan said.

He said a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office is stationed in the Pittsburgh Municipal Courts Building from Monday through Friday specifically to review arrest warrants requested after some period of investigation. That, he said, has been the process since before he joined the department in 2001.

“On-view arrests,” or those done when a crime occurs, are approved by supervisors in the bureau’s warrant office.

Mr. Zappala said that the city court warrant office has worked in an advisory role providing the same guidance that will now be required in all robbery and carjacking cases.

In his request, Mr. Zappala noted that the practice is endorsed by various bench and bar organizations,including the National District Attorneys Association.

This is the second time in a month that the top county prosecutor has sought to change the way local officers conduct robbery investigations and arrests.

After reading a Post-Gazette article on mistaken witness identifications in three robberies, Mr. Zappala sent a letter to Pittsburgh officials in July saying his office would not approve robbery warrants based solely on a witness identification of a stranger using the simultaneous photo arrays, in which suspects’ photographs are all on the same piece of paper. Instead, Mr. Zappala instructed Pittsburgh officers to switch to a sequential array, in which witnesses are shown photos of potential suspects one at a time.

That letter ignited a heated weeklong back-and-forth with Pittsburgh Public Safety director Stephen Bucar, who said city officers will not abide by Mr. Zappala’s request because the federal Department of Justice, for which he used to work, had raised doubts as to whether the sequential arrays were actually more effective.

Earlier this month, a different agency, Allegheny County police, arrested a man and accused him of attempting to pawn a dead man’s stolen jewelry based on the identification of a store owner who was shown a sequential photo array. Prosecutors withdrew that charge after a county detective contacted them and told them the witness had been mistaken. The new suspect confessed to the crime after he was spotted on a surveillance camera selling the jewelry elsewhere, police said.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com.

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