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New Judge in Wecht Case Holds that Warrants Authorizing Seizure of a Substantial Portion of the Evidence Used at the First Trial are Invalid under the Fourth Amendment.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | May 16, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

In an Opinion and Order issued this week, United States District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin held that the search warrants authorizing the seizure of boxes of files located at Dr. Cyril Wecht’s private pathology office and a laptop computer used by a secretary who was a County employee allegedly doing Wecht’s private work on County time were invalid under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A lengthy trial last year of the famed Pittsburgh forensic pathologist had resulted in a hung jury. An appeal to the Third Circuit lead to the appointment of a new trial judge for the announced second trial. The Third Circuit had hoped to stem the rancor among the parties by requiring a new pair of judicial eyes on the case.

The FBI Agent (Orsini) had detailed information justifying the searches in a memorandum that was not attached to the warrants. Instead, the memorandum was placed under seal to protect the integrity of the government’s case.

Judge McLaughlin ruled that the failure to attach this document to the warrants, or to supply the information in the body of the warrants, caused them to lack the specificity necessary to distinguish the file boxes or computer data to be seized from irrelevant boxes of documents or computer files. This would have the effect of permitting the officers executing the search to rummage through other information and turn up evidence that may not have been authorized for seizure under the warrant.

This ruling was made in response to a motion for reconsideration of various decisions by Judge Arthur Schwab, who conducted the first trial. Under the Rule of the Case doctrine, a second trial judge would not ordinarily reconsider issues decided by the first judge. However, it is within the power of a second judge to revisit issues previously argued when it is necessary, among other things, to avoid a manifest injustice. Judge Mc Laughlin declined to rule on numerous other issues raised by the defense for reconsideration, stating that the rulings announced were dispositive of the case and nothing further need be decided.

It is widely predicted that this prosecution will be quietly dropped, since key evidence for the surviving charges has been suppressed. It seems likely that, if the case is to proceed, an interlocatory appeal to the Third Circuit would be necessary. The Solicitor General would be required to approve such an appeal or any further prosecution of the case.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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