The PA Superior Court has recently decided that a defendant’s right to a fair trial and due process of law is violated when a prosecutor is permitted to suggest that the defendant’s pre-arrest efforts to retain an attorney are consistent with guilt.
Lang was convicted after a bench trial of sexual crimes against a minor in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
During Lang’s non-jury trial, the Commonwealth – over Lang’s objection – sought to admit evidence of internet searches recovered from an iPad that was seized from Lang’s residence pursuant to a search warrant. The evidence recovered from that iPad allegedly disclosed that internet searches were conducted for top Pittsburgh criminal attorneys.
The “trial court” subsequently convicted Lang, but the Judge that presided over Lang’s non-jury trial – for reasons unrelated to this appeal – was removed from the bench prior to sentencing. The case was then reassigned to another Judge who presided as the “post-trial court” over Lang’s sentencing hearing and post-sentence motions.
As part of his post-sentence motions, Lang requested a new trial based on the purported improper admission of his pre-arrest internet searches for criminal defense attorneys.
The post-trial court held a hearing and promptly issued an order (1) dismissing Lang’s conviction of unlawful contact with a minor and vacating the corresponding sentence, and (2) vacating the sentence at Lang’s remaining counts, granting a new trial based on the alleged erroneous admission of evidence of his internet searches.
The post-trial court “ultimately determined the admission of the evidence violated [Lang’s] right to due process and a fair trial because the evidence did not, in fact, warrant an inference of consciousness of guilt.” Further, the Court concluded that “[a violation of] the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to a fair trial and due process of law occurs when a prosecutor is permitted to suggest to a jury that a defendant’s pre-arrest efforts to retain an attorney are consistent with guilt.”
The Commonwealth thereafter filed an appeal to the Superior Court. As summarized by the Superior Court court, “[t]he crux of this appeal concerns the admission of evidence that [Lang] searched for legal counsel on the internet, before he was arrested or even implicated as a suspect in the underlying crime, and the Commonwealth used this evidence to show his consciousness of guilt.”
After review, the Superior Court held that “the post-trial court did not err or abuse its discretion when it found (1) Appellee’s constitutional due process rights were violated, (2) the prejudicial value of the evidence outweighed its probative value, and (3) admission of evidence was not harmless error.”
The Order granting Lang a new trial was therefore affirmed.