Within the criminal justice system, the primary obligation of the District Attorney is the presentation of charges and the prosecution of cases in the Court of Common Pleas. To perform these critical tasks, a division of labor has been created within the District Attorney’s Office.
The District Attorney’s Office vigorously prosecutes cases involving suspected animal cruelty. Cases prosecuted range from summary charges where suspected animal abuse has occurred to felony dog fighting cases. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. and Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein created the Allegheny Abused Animal Relief Fund (AAARF) which has raised funds to provide humane care for animals that have suffered from cruelty. The Fund serves as a model for other counties that have started similar programs in their jurisdictions.
The Critical Case Review Unit (CCRU) of the Office of the District Attorney is responsible for critically reviewing cases from the initial charging through conviction and beyond to ensure that the conviction is supported by the evidence, legal reasoning, and no instances of misconduct have occurred.
The CCRU is responsible for responding to petitions filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) in state court, the Anti-terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in federal court, and reviewing the case to confirm the integrity of the conviction for the defendant and the victim.
The CCRU is comprised of five (5) assistant district attorneys and one (1) deputy, who each manage over one hundred cases at different stages in the system. Each case is initially reviewed by the deputy district attorney. Cases are individually assigned. If necessary, the assigned attorney will ask for counsel to be appointed.
The CCRU addresses a variety of claims including but limited to: ineffective assistance of counsel, trial court error, time credit, and after discovered evidence. If a claim of after discovered evidence is raised that claim will be examined by the assigned attorney and if necessary various police agencies that investigated the case. The CCRU has worked with the City of Pittsburgh Homicide Division, the Allegheny County Police, and the District Attorney’s Office’s Detectives. A detective may be called upon to interview witnesses and review evidence.
If a meritorious claim is presented, the CCRU will concede relief. The CCRU is committed to maintaining the integrity of its convictions and ensure that justice has been served.
Members of the Asset Forfeiture Unit have numerous responsibilities with respect to the seizure, maintenance and destruction of evidence, contraband and other property. The unit oversees all of the police departments in Allegheny County with respect to the seizure, handling and storage of property. The most significant types of property seized are weapons, controlled substances, U.S currency and vehicles. The unit also acts as a liaison to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for witness relocation and protection, as well as coordinating community-based crime prevention programs and initiatives.
The Auto Theft Prevention Unit was established by the District Attorney in 1998 with assistance from the Auto Theft Prevention Authority. The Unit focuses on the investigation and prosecution of “chop shops,” auto theft rings and insurance fraud cases involving automobile theft. The majority of the cases prosecuted by the Unit are generated by the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Auto Squad and the Pennsylvania State Police Western Regional Auto Theft Task Force.
The Child Abuse Unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office is charged with the duty of prosecuting cases involving child physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. All felony arrests and search warrants in Allegheny County involving suspected child abuse are reviewed by experienced staff members of the District Attorney’s Office to ensure that the most appropriate course of action is taken. The unit also handles some child homicide cases. This unit is dedicated to prosecuting child abuse in the most thorough yet most compassionate of ways. The goal is to help the child while causing the least amount of stress to the child from the justice system.
A terrifying fact about child abuse is that most children are abused by people they know and trust and as such, child abuse often goes unreported. Some of the more prevalent signs of abuse and neglect are: unexplained burns, cuts, bruises or other injuries, bite marks, anti-social behavior, problems in school, fear of adults, depression, stressed behavior, lack of concentration, inappropriate interest or knowledge of sex acts, extreme hunger, lack of cleanliness and nightmares.
If you suspect child abuse, contact the Allegheny County Police for assistance at (412) 473-1251. To determine if a registered sex offender resides near you, visit: www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us
OTHER IMPORTANT CONTACT INFORMATION:
City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police: (412) 665-4020
Children, Youth and Family Services (CYF) (412) 473-2000
PA Childline: (800) 932-0313
Center for Victims of Violence and Crime(CVVC)
24 Hour Helpline: (412) 392-8582
24 Hour Toll Free Helpline: (866) 644-CVVC (2882)
Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR)
24 Hour Hotline: (866) ENDRAPE (363-7273)
24 Hour Hotline: (412) 431-7665
You can report suspected child abuse anonymously to PA Childline.
The Crimes Persons Unit prosecutes cases of adult sexual assault, serious physical assault, robberies (without firearms), adult kidnapping and other serious crimes of violence. Felony assault complaints and related search warrants must be approved by experienced personnel from this unit.
The unit’s goal is to vigorously prosecute cases and, at the same time, treat victims with sensitivity and consideration. Prosecutors assigned to this unit frequently attend trainings throughout this country to learn from national experts on the best practices for prosecuting these types of crimes.
Pennsylvania law requires the District Attorney’s Office to provide the defendants with certain documents and evidence, called discovery, which puts the defense on notice as to the evidence the District Attorney’s office intends to present at trial. These include the police reports, witness statements, laboratory reports, and other relevant documents which may also include photographs and other electronic evidence such as audio and video recordings. However, some documents may contain sensitive or confidential information that must be removed from the document first, for example – a witness’s social security number, a witness’s home address, and in some cases, the identity or contact information of a witness. The District Attorney’s Office has the ability to provide discovery to the defendants’ attorneys either as paper copies or electronically.
The District Attorney of Allegheny County is leading the fight against domestic violence. Domestic violence is not a private family matter, but instead is criminal conduct that must be vigorously prosecuted. Through its policies and procedures, the Office of the District Attorney will work to promote the safety and welfare of domestic violence victims while at the same time holding batterers accountable for their criminal conduct.
The Domestic Violence Unit prosecutes intimate partner violence at each stage of the criminal justice system. Each specially trained prosecutor interacts with domestic violence victims, with the assistance of legal advocates from domestic violence provider agencies throughout the county. Additionally, an Assistant District Attorney from the unit appears in Family Court weekly to address violations of Protection From Abuse (PFA) orders.
Who are the victims of domestic violence?
Victims of domestic violence can be female or male, of any race, religion, sexual orientation or economic background. Women are ten times more likely to be victimized by an intimate partner than men. Approximately two million women in America are victims of domestic violence every year. The Office of the District Attorney will work together with other agencies in an effort to assist victims in ending the violence in their lives.
What to do if you are a victim of domestic violence?
- Report domestic violence to the police.
- Get medical attention if you have been injured.
- Get a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order.
- Get assistance for you and your children. Shelters provide a variety of support services that are confidential and free of charge. Services include:
- 24 Hour Confidential Crisis Hotline.
- Legal Advocates to assist victims in the court process.
- Shelter for victims and children.
- Information and referrals.
- Individual counseling and support groups.
Domestic Violence Programs and Hotlines
Due to the confidential nature of domestic violence issues and the need to maintain safety and security, domestic violence programs do not publish the addresses of their shelters or safe homes. The hotline number is the key to accessing all the shelter services.
Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh
24 Hour Hotline: (412) 687-0005
Text: (412) 744-8445
Shelter Intake and Crisis Counseling 24 hours
Crisis Center North
24 Hour Hotline: (412) 364-5556
24 Hour Toll Free Hotline: (866) 782-0911
Safe Home Intake and Crisis Counseling 24 hours
Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center (Tarentum)
24 Hour Hotline: (724) 224-1266
24 Hour Toll Free Hotline: (888) 299-4673
Shelter Intake and Crisis Counseling 24 hours
Center For Victims
24 hour crisis counseling
The Elder Abuse Unit was created in 2004 due to the unfortunate and increasing number of crimes committed against the elderly. By statute, elder abuse crimes are those that are committed against persons over the age of 60. Statistics indicate that the majority of crimes committed against the elderly are committed by people that are known by the victim, such as family members or caretakers.
The Elder Abuse Unit focuses on prosecuting the most serious offenses against elderly citizens such as aggravated assault, robbery and financial exploitation offenses. Judges can impose mandatory sentences for offenders who are convicted of aggravated assault, sexual assault and theft by deception offenses against the elderly. The District Attorney’s Office works closely with the police and agencies such as Protective Services, which is part of The Area Agency on Aging.
Some of the signs that may indicate that an elderly citizen is being subjected to criminal behavior are: physical abuse, such as bruises, cuts, marks, fractures, swelling, welts or pain; sexual abuse, such as complaints about nonconsensual or threatened fondling, touching or other sexual activity; neglect, such as malnourishment or dehydration, weight loss, bedsores and lack of medical attention; and financial exploitation, such as sudden or unusual transfers of money, assets or property to a caretaker, unpaid bills and missing checks or property.
If you suspect an elderly citizen may be the victim of physical, sexual or financial abuse, contact Protective Services or the Center for Victims of Violence and Crimes.
Protective Services: (800) 344-4319
Center for Victims of Violence and Crime (CVVC)
24 Hour Helpline: (412) 392-8582
Toll Free: (866) 644-CVVC (2882)
The Electronic Surveillance Unit assists law enforcement in the proper use of all investigative tools permitted by the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act. The unit serves as a resource for periodic training about proper procedures within this Act to police officers and is an on-call resource for police departments throughout Allegheny County on a 24 hour basis.
The General Trial Unit prosecutes misdemeanor and felony cases not eligible for Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) or assigned to another unit for prosecution. Cases may involve theft, assault, burglary, drug possession, driving under the influence, terroristic threats, criminal mischief, bad checks, illegal gambling, prostitution, stalking, etc. and many others.
The Grand Jury Unit of the District Attorney’s Office summons citizens of Allegheny County to convene for 18 months as an investigative body. Prosecutors, assisted by law enforcement personnel, present testimony/evidence of crimes occurring in Allegheny County that cannot otherwise be solved by normal investigative methods. These crimes require specific resources available only to a Grand Jury, such as the power to compel witness testimony and compel the production of documentary evidence.
The Homicide Unit was created by the District Attorney in 2000 to dedicate a handful of veteran trial attorneys to the exclusive prosecution of those who take the lives of others. To ensure quality control, the District Attorney invoked a local court rule in 2005 which tasked the members of the unit with the review and approval of all search warrants and arrest warrants applied for in any homicide investigation undertaken in Allegheny County. As such, members of the unit are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide guidance to state, county and local police officers who investigate suspicious deaths. The unit is staffed by career prosecutors with extensive trial experience, as well as support paralegals who assist with trial preparation and research.
The unit oversees the investigation and prosecution of a variety of cases, including those charging first degree, or premeditated murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence; second degree, or felony murder, which also carries a mandatory life sentence; and third degree, malicious murder, which can result in a sentence of twenty (20) to forty (40) years in prison. In addition, the unit handles cases involving “heat of passion” or “imperfect self-defense” killings, which often result in voluntary manslaughter felony convictions for up to ten (10) to twenty (20) years imprisonment. It is important to remember that anyone convicted of committing any of these crimes with a handgun in Pennsylvania is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five (5) years in prison.
Vehicular homicides also constitute a significant portion of the cases handled by the unit, often including felony charges for deaths resulting from violations of the Vehicles Code, especially those involving drunk drivers. In Pennsylvania, an impaired driver who takes the life of another faces a mandatory minimum sentence of three (3) years in prison. The unit also has responsibility for involuntary manslaughter charges, which are misdemeanors that arise from a person’s negligent or reckless conduct, often in connection with unsupervised children, unsecured firearms, controlled substances, and the like.
The members of the unit tend to concentrate on the more complicated and heinous murder cases, which make up only a fraction of the annual caseload. Fortunately, however, the District Attorney is also well-served by a cadre of equally experienced prosecutors drawn from other units in the Office, who routinely lend their expertise to those homicide cases best suited to their particular talents. As such, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office is well equipped to ensure that justice is distributed – forcefully, fairly, and professionally – to any person who takes the life of another.
This Unit investigates and prosecutes cases involving numerous types of insurance fraud. A typical case is referred to the unit by an insurance company which suspects that it has been defrauded by a claimant pursuant to an insurance claim. Cases are also referred from individuals who have discovered or suspect that persons that they are acquainted with are defrauding an insurance company. The unit has successfully prosecuted cases involving staged accidents, false injury claims, false insurance applications, workers’ compensation fraud and health care fraud.
The District Attorney employs an Investigations Unit comprised of sworn detectives who are assigned matters referred to the District Attorney by citizens and/or other law enforcement agencies. These matters are reviewed by detectives and prosecutors to determine an appropriate resolution of the matter. Charges may be filed, the matter may be referred to another law enforcement agency, or another course of action may be taken. Typical cases investigated include white-collar crime, public corruption and extensive financial crimes.
Several detectives also supervise the District Attorney Narcotics Enforcement Team (DANET). In 2000, the District Attorney authorized the creation of DANET to train and coordinate local police officers to investigate drug trafficking activity in Allegheny County. majority of police departments in Allegheny County are active participants in DANET. Investigations have resulted in numerous prosecutions and the seizure of considerable amounts of U.S. currency, assets and other proceeds of illegal drug trafficking activity, as well as the seizure and destruction of firearms and other weapons.
The Juvenile Court Unit is responsible for prosecuting all delinquency cases heard by the Judges assigned to Juvenile Court. The matters handled by the unit constitute a wide spectrum of cases including: theft, arson, robbery, burglary, criminal mischief, driving under the influence and assault. The unit is also responsible for the transfer of offenders from Juvenile Court to adult criminal court when such a transfer is deemed to be in the public interest. Petitions to transfer juveniles to adult Criminal Court usually involve serious felony cases and juveniles with significant records. The unit is also generally responsible for the prosecution of cases that originate in adult Criminal Court, which are subsequently transferred to Juvenile Court pursuant to the “decertification” process.
Any juvenile over the age of 14 but under the age of 18 may be charged as an adult for certain serious crimes such as homicide, robbery, rape, kidnapping, and many others. However, to transfer the juvenile child from adult Criminal Court to Juvenile Court, a motion must be granted in the Court of Common Pleas to decertify the juvenile from adult Criminal Court into Juvenile Court. Penalties for convicted adults are generally more serious in adult Criminal Court than those penalties for the same criminal acts that can be imposed if a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent (found guilty) in Juvenile Court.
Mental Health Court is a treatment court designed to provide early identification of individuals with qualifying charges in the criminal justice system who have obvious manifestations of mental illness and/or a documented Axis I mental health diagnosis. The Court provides multi-level benefits for the community, including improving public safety by offering intensive, targeted supervision as well as ongoing monitoring of social services and mental health treatment of individuals who appear before the Court. The participants of Mental Health Court have demonstrated lower recidivism rates.
The Narcotics Unit handles the serious felony drug cases arising in Allegheny County. Generally, these cases involve the delivery of drugs and possession with the intent to deliver drugs. Two of the most common drugs involved in the cases that the unit prosecutes are heroin and cocaine. The unit also concentrates on offenders who sell illegal drugs near or on school property. In fact, offenders convicted of selling illegal drugs on or within 1,000 feet of school property may face additional prison time, if convicted.
The abuse and sale of prescription medications are also crimes prosecuted by the District Attorney. In particular, the abuse and sale of pain medications is on the rise. Often medications are acquired via forged prescriptions. However, some patients, who are validly prescribed medications, may then illegally sell some of their medications in order to make money. Persons who illegally sell prescription medications which are controlled substances are prosecuted as felons by the Narcotics Unit. Additionally, doctors, pharmacies and retailers of non-prescription medications work with the District Attorney to address numerous issues.
The District Attorney’s Office was involved in the creation of a special “Drug Court” in Allegheny County. The purpose of Drug Court is to provide the means to help addicted individuals within the criminal justice system address their addictions.
The Pretrial Screening Unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office creates the information which is the final document that sets out the charges filed against a defendant in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. The Assistant District Attorneys assigned to the Pretrial Screening Unit review the police reports and any laboratory reports to determine whether the facts included in those reports support the charges contained in the information. The information is filed with the Department of Court Records and provided to the defendant at the formal arraignment.
The District Attorney was instrumental in the creation of SARTAC (Sexual Assault Response Team of Allegheny County) to provide services to sexual assault victims. The participation of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) in jurisdictions nationwide has improved the care provided to sexual assault victims, enhanced the quality of evidence collected, and assisted in the successful prosecution of cases.
The District Attorney collaborated with Allegheny County Adult Probation in implementing special conditions of probation for defendants convicted of crimes of sexual assault who are placed on county probation or parole. These court-ordered conditions assist Allegheny County Adult Probation Officers in the supervision of sex offenders. Court-ordered conditions specifically applicable to the particular defendant, such as mandated sex offender treatment, prohibiting contact with children, prohibiting Internet usage and the viewing of pornography, permit the Probation Officer to seek court enforcement of conditions.
The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, established by the Pennsylvania Legislature, has created a formula that assigns an Offense Gravity Score (OGS) to each criminal offense based upon the severity of the crime. A defendant is also assigned a Prior Record Score (PRS) depending on the number of prior offenses committed by the defendant contained in the defendant’s Criminal History Record (“rap-sheet”). Using the defendant’s PRS and OGS for the crimes charged, the Sentencing Guidelines Unit generates the sentencing guidelines for the case using a grid established by the Commission on Sentencing. The sentencing guidelines are presented to the trial Judge to consider after a defendant has either entered a guilty plea or been found guilty at trial.
Veterans Court is a treatment court designed to identify individuals with qualifying criminal charges who currently serve or who have been honorably discharged from military service, and who additionally have a documented Axis I mental health diagnosis including but not limited to post traumatic stress syndrome and/or traumatic brain injury. The Court is designed to provide intensive supervision and treatment services for veterans. The Court also offers a peer support/mentoring program designed specifically to enhance the recovery process. Veterans Court provides multi-level benefits to the community including projected lower recidivism rates for participants.
The Violent Crimes and Firearms Unit was established in 2006 to address the increasing number of violent crimes, especially those committed with handguns and other types of firearms. The unit prosecutes a majority of the most serious violent crimes. Often, crimes committed with firearms trigger mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of the crimes.
For example, the visible possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence (robbery, burglary, rape, etc.) implicates a mandatory minimum sentence of five (5) years imprisonment.
Upon a second conviction for a crime of violence, a mandatory minimum sentence of ten (10) years imprisonment is applicable.
Upon a third or subsequent conviction for a crime of violence, a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five (25) years is imposed. However, if the court deems such sentence insufficient, a life sentence without parole for the offender may be imposed.
An individual who possesses with the intent to deliver a controlled substance or delivers a controlled substance (a drug dealer as opposed to a mere user of drugs) while possessing a firearm or having a firearm in close proximity, will be sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment.
A citizen may have a right to possess a firearm. However, there are some limitations:
- An individual may not possess a firearm within a court facility.
- An individual may not possess a firearm on school property.
- An individual may not possess a concealed firearm unless licensed by the Sheriff.
- An individual may not carry a firearm in a vehicle unless licensed by the Sheriff.
And lastly, a person who falsely states that the purchase of a firearm is for himself/herself (when in fact the purchase is for someone else) commits a crime commonly referred to as a “straw purchase” and can be sentenced up to seven years in prison.