Former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky was charged Thursday with taking cocaine evidence seized in drug arrests that he ordered brought to his courtroom for pretrial hearings.
Pozonsky, 57, returned here from his new home in Anchorage, Alaska, to face a number of charges filed by the state police Organized Crime Task Force for taking and tampering with evidence in several cases and allegedly replacing the drug with other substances, including baking soda.
The retired jurist was arraigned before District Judge Robert Redlinger on charges of conflict of interest, theft, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received, obstructing the administration of law, misapplication of entrusted property and possession of cocaine.
Pozonsky abruptly resigned June 29, 2012, after he had been removed from hearing criminal cases by President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca and reports surfaced that he was being investigated by a state grand jury.
Pozonsky’s defense attorney, Robert DelGreco, said Thursday that when the investigation began, his client decided to resign rather that disrupt the court. He called Pozonsky a faithful servant and competent jurist over the last 30 years.
The 10-page grand jury presentment states that witnesses described “unusual” and “troubling” occurrences in a number of criminal cases. The handling of evidence in criminal cases differs by county and courtroom, but usually the law enforcement agency retains custody of it. “It is unusual for a judge to keep custody themselves of controlled substances admitted as evidence. What is even more unusual is for a judge to insist that controlled substances be introduced into evidence at a pretrial hearing such as what occurred in these cases,” the presentment states.
In May 2011, Pozonsky began to request that police bring the drugs to his courtroom for such hearings, where he entered them into evidence and retained them. The presentment outlines nine cases in which cocaine seized in drug cases was turned over to Pozonsky, who kept it in a locked cabinet in a vault room in the judge’s office.
Last April, Robert Lemons, then Washington police chief, sent a letter to Pozonsky asking about cocaine turned over to the judge during a suppression hearing the previous year in the case against Shantaye Brown.
Several police officers testified before the grand jury that Pozonsky insisted they bring the drugs confiscated to the courtroom with them. A sheriff’s deputy who had made a drug arrest told Pozonsky that the drugs were at the crime lab. Pozonsky told him to bring the drug to his chambers when it was returned from the lab. When Pozonsky saw the deputy in the courthouse a day or two later, he again reportedly inquired about the drugs.
Pozonsky’s law clerk, Joshua Camson, indicated to the grand jury that only drug evidence was required to be produced at Pozonsky’s pretrial hearings. He also testified that he was told by Pozonsky that that was the rule.
On May 1, 2012, Pozonsky issued an order for the destruction of evidence in 16 cases that had been concluded.
District Attorney Gene Vittone responded with a motion asking that the evidence be returned to him. Vittone said that notice had not been given to possible rightful owners of the property, nor was there any way to ensure the destruction of any items had been done properly.
At a hearing on the motion, the judge told Vittone that he personally destroyed all evidence in his possession and filed a certification indicating the evidence had been destroyed two days after he issued the order.
On May 9, 2012, a court reporter found a box on her desk containing evidence. Camson took the box to the district attorney’s office, where it was handed over to state troopers. When Camson told Pozonsky what happened, the judge reportedly became angry and told him to get the box back. State police refused to return the box.
Later that day, O’Dell Seneca issued an order that state police take custody of all criminal case evidence that was in Pozonsky’s evidence locker.
Several manila envelopes were found, including ones regarding the cases against Ashlie Harris, Andre Cromwell and Kristopher Strejcek. Six bags of cocaine were tested again at the crime lab and were determined to contain less of the drug or to be a substance that was not cocaine – in one case, baking soda. In all, more than 100 grams of cocaine were missing from those six bags.
Found in an envelope bearing Strejcek’s name were two bags sealed with cellophane tape, as opposed to evidence tape, containing a white substance. That substance was retested and found not to be cocaine.
When shown a photograph of a sealed envelope in the Strejcek case, a retired crime lab forensic scientist said that he did not think the state police used that type of tape. He also said that his initials were not present on the bag, which was his standard procedure when sealing drugs that had been tested.
A second law clerk for Pozonsky testified to seeing Pozonsky walk out of the evidence vault carrying an evidence envelope of the type containing a controlled substance. Pozonsky would go into his office for 10 to 20 minutes before returning the envelope to the vault.
Pozonsky’s DNA was reportedly found on tape used to close a clear bag containing three Baggie corners. The bag had been in Harris’ evidence envelope.
The presentment does not address what Pozonsky allegedly did with the cocaine.
“It’s another sad day in Washington County to have a case like this go forward,” said former District Attorney Steve Toprani, who was the chief county prosecutor in 2011. “It’s really troubling that we have these types of activities in the (criminal) complaint.”
“These things are tragic, no matter who it is,” O’Dell Seneca said. “The rest of us at the courthouse will continue to do our jobs.”
Pozonsky, who made no statement during his arraignment, is free on $25,000 unsecured bond and was given permission to return to his home in Alaska.
Redlinger recused himself from the case, and a June 13 preliminary hearing date was continued. DelGreco and Michael Ahwesh, senior attorney with the state attorney general’s office, indicated they would ask the court to bring in a district judge from outside the county for the preliminary hearing. If the case is held for further court action, they also expect to ask for a trial judge from another county.