ELK COUNTY--The backlog of cases facing the 59th Judicial District as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic got a little bit lighter on Monday as Elk and Cameron County President Judge Shawn T. McMahon and Elk County District Attorney Thomas G.G. Coppolo, along with Public Defender Gary Knaresboro, along with a slew of private defense attorneys worked through 42 cases in the all-day session. LeeAnn L. Covac, The Elk County District Court Administrator, has worked diligently over the past 18 months to adapt the Courthouse to the COVID-19 guidelines and a new system of multiple cases, with similar charges being called forward in small groups worked well in the Monday session.
The serious increase in the use of illicit substances across the county in the wake of the pandemic has been widely reported in all media, and Elk County is no exception to the national trend. All of the local police departments and the Pennsylvania State Police have seen a huge rise in the transport, sale, and use of narcotics and the resulting criminal charges that accompany the trafficking of these drugs. The most common charge in many cases is for the use or possession of drug paraphernalia. Defined as 35 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 780-113(a)(32) under the Pennsylvania Controlled Substances, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, the broad term can include many items. The law prohibits the use of, or possession with intent to use, drug paraphernalia for the purpose of planting, propagating, cultivating, growing, harvesting, manufacturing, compounding, converting, producing, processing, preparing, testing, analyzing, packing, repacking, storing, containing, concealing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance. Usually, a charge for possession of drug paraphernalia stems from the possession of items used for transporting, snorting, smoking, or injecting drugs. Possession of drug paraphernalia is an ungraded misdemeanor, and upon conviction, a person may be sentenced to imprisonment for up to one year, fined up to $2,500, or both. Most defendants, who do not have a lengthy criminal record accept plea deals on the lesser charges of paraphernalia which leads to a six-month to a one-year term of probation, with associated fines, fees, and costs of prosecution
The following defendants accepted plea deals on drug paraphernalia charges on Monday: Roberta Benninger, 62, of St. Marys pled guilty and will be under the supervision of the Elk County Probation Department for six months. Brett Chicola, 36, of Byrnedale, will spend the next 12 months on Probation. John Richards, 40, of St. Marys will also be under the care of the Probation Department along with Jason Burkett, 40, of Byrnedale, who will spend a total of 24 months on Probation for a second charge he also pled guilty on.
With the ever-increasing use of technology for instant communication across multitudes of social media platforms, the underage users of this technology are targets for adults all over the world as well as predators here in Elk County. Four men locally accepted plea deals for the Corruption of Minors in Elk County Court on Monday. A Corruption of Minors charge is often issued when an adult is suspected of encouraging, aiding, or enticing someone under the age of 18 to commit a crime or violate their parole or court order; in these cases, all involved the solicitation and distribution of photographs of a minor over social media. Kevin Joseph Gnan, 24, of St. Marys will spend the next year on probation, pay associated fines, fees, and costs of prosecution and supervision, submit and pay for a $250.00 charge to have his DNA permanently stored by the PA Department of Corrections and have no further contact with the victim or family. Khalil Unique Murray, 24, of Olean, NY, will also suffer the same consequences, but his probation will be transferred to the Olean NY Probation Department. Benjamin Allen Yonker, 23, of Wilcox, will also have to submit a DNA sample and be on probation for 12 months, along with Jacob Allen Meyer, 24, of St. Marys.
Eight defendants were placed into the ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) program on Monday. ARD can offer many advantages for first-time offenders charged with certain crimes. This is most usually associated with DAI (Driving After Imbibing, PA's term for DUI's). This option, defined as a pre-adjudicated disposition of the charges, means that defendants can petition the court to remove the conviction for the crime they are pleading guilty to, as long as the conditions of ARD are met, including supervisory probation. ARD's many advantages come at a price. Fees and court costs can run into thousands of dollars. In addition, the programs required under ARD also carry significant price tags. A DUI charge directed into ARD can cost $3,000 to $4,000 more than a standard case. Fees include supervision fees, enrollment fees, program costs, and court costs. Attorney fees are separate and are charged on top of this amount. All ARD bills must be paid and settled before the defendant is deemed to have completed the program. If the participants don't pay up in the allotted time, violate conditions of their parole, or are convicted on other charges during this time, their ARD is terminated, and the prosecution of the original charges resumes. Entering the program on Monday were Ryan Hanes, Jason Burkett, Kaleb Wilson, Steven Vollmer, Jason Shaw, Mark Miller, Thomas Catalone, and Corey Bush.
A May of 2020 Superior Courts' decision in Pennsylvania has impacted how first offense DAI's are handled in Pennsylvania. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Chichkin decision: A defendant had completed ARD for a first DUI but picked up a second a couple of years later. For sentencing purposes, even though the defendant completed the ARD program, the second DUI was counted as a second DUI, which brought enhanced mandatory minimum penalties. But there was no trial or plea on that first DUI, so the defendant argued he was being sentenced to the increased penalty without the first DUI having been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ultimately sided with the defendant and remanded the case back for sentencing as a first-offense DUI. In Elk County that has translated to cases that would normally be considered Second DAI's are now categorized as first-time DAI's if they have completed the ARD program previously, but the defendants do not have the option of entering the program a second time. Defendants Patrick Desmond, Danielle Geiser, Bobbi-Jo Langille, and Daniel Young will spend the next six months on probation, Complete Phase I and II of Alcohol Training School, and pay fines, fees, and Court costs. Under Pennsylvania’s DAI sentencing scheme, DAI offenders with “prior offenses” within ten years face heightened minimum and maximum penalties. For cases involving sentencings in “second in ten” or “third in ten” DAI offenses post- Chichkin, some counties are abiding by the ruling. Others attempt to overcome Chichkin by introducing evidence of the earlier ARD DAI charges at trial on the subsequent DAI offense to trigger the sentencing enhancement. Elk County has not yet indicated which way they will go in this complicated matter.
Bench Warrants were issued for Sean Copella of Wilcox and Jerome Dussia for failing to appear for court on Monday. A Bench warrant is a court order that judges issue when a person commits contempt of court, such as failing to appear for a scheduled court date. Bench warrants can be issued for both criminal and civil matters and authorize the immediate on-site arrest of the individual subject to the bench warrant. Any persons named should immediately contact their local law enforcement agency to avoid more charges being filed.