In August 2011, Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky, who had presided over a Washington County courtroom for more than a decade, made a peculiar request in what was otherwise a routine pretrial hearing: He wanted to see the drug evidence.
According to a grand jury presentment, Mr. Pozonsky went so far as calling a state trooper handling the case the next day, asking him to bring him the drugs that had been seized during the execution of a search warrant the previous year, a haul that totaled more than 200 grams of cocaine. The trooper complied and delivered the evidence, sealed in evidence bags, to the judge's chambers.
Less than a year later, when state police began investigating Mr. Pozonsky, they found that the bags -- which themselves contained the plastic baggies the drugs were found in -- had been tampered with. Evidence seals were broken on some them. Some of the baggies had been filled with sodium bicarbonate -- baking soda -- and contained Mr. Pozonsky's DNA.
Thursday, Mr. Pozonsky, who retired last year in the midst of the state grand jury investigation, was arraigned by District Judge Robert Redlinger on a raft of misdemeanor drug and theft charges for poaching drugs from that and nine other criminal cases. In all, he faces eight counts of theft, four counts of possession, one count of misapplication of entrusted property and one count of obstruction, all misdemeanors. He is also charged with felony conflict of interest, a violation of state ethics law.
When Mr. Pozonsky, 57, departed from the bench, he left behind a storied career that spanned 14 years. During his tenure, he oversaw many high-profile criminal cases and started the Drug Treatment Court and was well known in the tight-knit legal community there.
But his final months in office were rocky. In the summer or fall of 2011, then-District Attorney Steven M. Toprani, notified the state attorney general's office after state police raised concerns about Mr. Pozonsky's unusual handling of drug evidence. District Attorney Gene Vittone, who took office at the start of 2012, also notified the AG's office.
"It was brought to my attention that inappropriate requests were being made by Judge Pozonsky to possess drug evidence for pretrial hearings for pretrial matters," he said.
The nine-page presentment describes nine cases where Mr. Pozonsky requested or demanded evidence be produced for his courtroom, even for pretrial hearings when neither the defense attorney or prosecutor felt it was necessary. On one occasion, he requested all evidence for a particular case but then returned items that were not drugs -- including cash and a sword. In a 10th case, from 2004, drug evidence was signed out of a Washington Police Department evidence locker by an assistant district attorney and delivered to Mr. Pozonsky at his request.
Typically, drug evidence is handled and maintained by police or the district attorney's office, and judges rarely, if ever, request it for pretrial hearings. But a former law clerk testified that Mr. Pozonsky told him it "was the rule."
Police officers testified before the grand jury that Mr. Pozonsky often held onto drug evidence after he requested it for pretrial hearings. Over the years, he would have amassed hundreds of grams of cocaine in addition to marijuana and tablets of Suboxone, a narcotic used to treat opioid addiction, in a filing cabinet in his chambers on the first floor of the Washington County Courthouse.
According to the grand jury presentment, Washington City police Chief Robert Lemons sent a letter to Mr. Pozonsky in April of 2012, asking if he still had drug evidence in his possession from a 2-year-old case. On May 1 of last year, in a move that infuriated the district attorney's office, Mr. Pozonsky unilaterally ordered the destruction of evidence in that case and 17 others. Most were drug-related. About half of the cases described in the presentment were listed in the destruction order.
In an interview, Mr. Vittone said Mr. Pozonsky issued the order without consulting prosecutors on the cases and without notifying the owners of the evidence that it was being destroyed, as is required in some cases. In at least one case, the defendant was still eligible for appeal. It's not clear if or how the evidence was destroyed.
About a week after Mr. Pozonsky issued the destruction order, Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca ordered state police to seize all criminal case evidence from Mr. Pozonsky. Inside a locked filing cabinet in his chambers, investigators found none of the drug evidence from five cases listed in the destruction order. When they pulled evidence on three other cases, they found that evidence seals had been broken and that, in some cases, drugs were either missing or replaced with something else. In one case, in which 200 grams of cocaine had been seized, investigators found the cocaine was either missing or replaced with baking soda.
Finally, Judge O'Dell Seneca stripped him of all criminal cases and shut down the Drug Treatment Court. He retired in July because he was aware of the investigation and wanted to avoid being "disruptive or distracting to the Washington County judicial system," his attorney, Robert Del Greco, said.
After leaving the bench, he moved to Anchorage, Alaska, to be with his wife, Sara, a politically connected native of that state. In the fall, he was hired workers' compensation hearing officer for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, a position that paid around $80,000 a year. In December, when questions arose about the circumstances of his departure from Washington County, he resigned and an internal investigation was launched into how he was hired.
Mr. Del Greco called Mr. Pozonsky a "faithful jurist" who has served Washington County for several decades. Mr. Pozonsky returned voluntarily from Alaska for arraignment.
Mr. Pozonsky was released on $25,000 bond. His preliminary hearing is scheduled June 13 but likely will be postponed, Mr. Del Greco said.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published May 23, 2013 2:15 PM