Monday, August 23, 2021

DA accused of preferential treatment for rich and famous

The lawyer for a Derry man awaiting trial on drunken driving charges contends Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck gave preferential treatment to a local celebrity and unfairly rejected a bid for his “blue collar” client to enter a jail diversionary program, reported the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

Defense attorney Robert Domenick, in court documents filed Wednesday, said Peck’s office used “divine district attorney superpowers” when it allowed the radio play-by-play man for the Pittsburgh Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football and basketball teams to enroll in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for a DUI charge last year. Prosecutors declined to offer the same deal to a Giant Eagle meat cutter accused of a similar offense.

Paul Barnhart, 25, was arrested Dec. 12 when police said he was drunk while driving his Dodge Charger up to 120 mph on Route 22 in Derry Township. According to court records, police said Barnhart had a blood-alcohol content of 0.174%, more than twice the limit at which a motorist in Pennsylvania is considered to be intoxicated.

He was charged with DUI and speeding offenses and faces potential sentences of three days in jail or six months on house arrest, if convicted, Domenick said. He noted that Barnhart had never before been arrested but had several traffic offenses on his record.

Domenick said prosecutors refused to allow Barnhart to enter the ARD program, which allows first-time nonviolent offenders to serve a probation term without having to plead guilty to charges and enables them to have their criminal records expunged.

As part of its argument, the defense referred to the DUI case last year of broadcaster Bill Hillgrove. The 79-year-old Murrysville resident was charged in January 2020 after police said he was intoxicated and crashed his car through the front windows of a local pharmacy. No one was injured. Hillgrove in October, with the district attorney’s consent, entered the ARD program and was ordered to serve two years on probation. It was Hillgrove’s second time in the ARD program, having served a probation sentence for another drunken driving charge about two decades earlier.

Domenick said the district attorney has not applied a fair standard when determining who is allowed to enroll in the diversionary program.

“We are arguing that hitting a building full of people at 5 (p.m.) while driving drunk is more dangerous to human life and public safety than speeding at night on a(n) empty stretch of a divided four-lane highway where no businesses are open,” Domenick wrote in his court filing. “Yet our district attorney seems to have set a low bar for admission to the ARD program for the rich and famous only.”

Peck denied the accusation of favoritism and said the circumstances between the two cases are significantly different. He called the allegations related to Barnhart “too egregious to be considered for ARD,” and denied that Hillgrove’s status played a role in his case.

“I don’t know Mr. Hillgrove. He was simply another defendant in a case,” Peck said.

Judge Christopher Feliciani scheduled a hearing on Oct. 18 on Barnhart’s request to allow him to enter the program over the district attorney’s objections.

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