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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Trial Court’s Identification of Defense Counsel’s as Public Defender Not Grounds for Mistrial

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently held that a trial court’s reference to defense counsel’s status as a public defender before the jury in a DUI case was not grounds for a mistrial.

One afternoon in May 2014, Pennsylvania state trooper Michael Perillo was dispatched to Interstate 76-West due to reports of erratic driving. Appellant James Melnick reportedly drove his blue Volvo past other drivers, struck the center concrete barrier, and continued driving. Melnick continued driving recklessly. He nearly struck two vehicles and crossed rumble strips. As he proceeded onto State Route 422 West, Melnick almost struck the guardrail. Once on the road, he drifted out of his lane and struck another vehicle driven by Derek Beeks, who had his four-year-old granddaughter as a passenger.

Trooper Perillo arrived at the scene of the accident and approached Melnick’s vehicle. He immediately noticed Melnick’s bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and sluggish movement. Trooper Perillo also noticed that Melnick’s pupils were constricted. An ambulance was called to the scene. Concerned for Melnick’s safety, Trooper Perillo placed him in the back of his patrol car.

After concluding that Melnick’s impairment was drug-related, Trooper Perillo placed him under arrest for DUI. Trooper Perillo requested that Melnick submit to a blood test and read him the O’Connell warnings. (“O’Connell warnings” require that the officer specifically inform a motorist that his driving privileges will be suspended for one year if he refuses chemical testing, and Miranda rights do not apply to chemical testing.)

The appellant was charged with DUI in July 2014. In April 2015, the trial began. During voir dire, the trial court introduced Melnick’s trial counsel, John Kravitz, to the jury panel and stated that he worked for the public defender’s office. Kravitz moved for a mistrial based on this identification, which the court denied.

The jury found Melnick guilty of DUI, and Melnick appealed.

On appeal, Melnick argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for mistrial or a new jury panel on the basis that, during voir dire, the trial court noted that Melnick’s trial counsel was a public defender.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has previously held that “any reference to counsel as the public defender is insignificant and does not violate equal protection.” The court reasoned that nothing in the record indicated that the jury panel was tainted. Counsel was permitted to ask the prospective jurors if they could still be impartial after learning he was a public defender, but counsel declined to do so.

Pursuant to this precedent, the appeals court held that the trial court’s reference to Melnick’s trial counsel was likewise insignificant. The court noted that in denying counsel’s motion, the trial court indicated that it would ask the jurors “if knowing or having heard [its] reference to the defendant’s financial status, if they feel they can still be fair and impartial jurors.” Melnick’s counsel responded that they would request the court not to belabor the point and requested that having turned down the motion, no further discussion of it be had.

For these reasons, the court found that Melnick was not entitled to relief. The court affirmed Melnick’s conviction.

Hiring the right attorney can make all the difference in the world.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and will fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that you and your family can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Parents Petition for Stricter DUI Laws, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Reverses DUI Defendant’s Grant of Early Parole, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, April 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appellate Court Holds DUI’s Can Occur on Private Roadways, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, April 1, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Driver’s Arrest Was Supported By Probable Cause, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, March 15, 2016.