Com. v. DeBlase

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Citation515 A.2d 564,357 Pa.Super. 71
Decision Date22 September 1986
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Thomas DeBLASE, Appellee.

Mary A. Killinger, Asst. Dist. Atty., Norristown, for Com., appellant.

Henry T. Crocker, Pottstown, for appellee.



We are asked to decide whether the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act 1 permits an exception for the unauthorized interception of telephone conversations where the person who made the tape recordings was subsequently murdered. We are also asked to determine whether the sixth amendment right to counsel attaches to the pre-arrest use of a consensual body wire on the particular facts presented in this case. We find no justification for an exception to the Wiretap Act and affirm the suppression of the taped telephone conversations. We find that the sixth amendment right to counsel did not attach since adversary judicial criminal proceedings had not yet been initiated. Accordingly, we reverse that portion of the lower court order which suppressed the tape recordings made as a result of the body wire.

This case is an appeal from a suppression order. Testimony presented at a pre-trial hearing established the following facts. Millionaire real-estate developer David Swinehart was murdered in January of 1982. Prior to his death he installed a line-activated tape recorder on his estranged wife's private telephone line in order to obtain evidence for use in a divorce proceeding. The tape recordings document an illicit tryst between Mrs. Swinehart and Swinehart's 23 year old nephew. The tapes were obtained from three sources: Swinehart's car, his lawyer and from the recorder itself by the police after the killing based on information from Swinehart's girlfriend.

Swinehart's nephew, Thomas DeBlase, is the appellee in this case. He was questioned at Borough Hall by police following the murder and advised of his Miranda rights. He denied involvement in or knowledge of the murder but admitted to his romantic liaison with Mrs. Swinehart. Appellee expressed the desire to consult with counsel before further questioning and was released. He was questioned on a second occasion, following Miranda warnings, and he denied involvement in the murder. Following this, and before the end of January 1982, appellee took a polygraph test. In April of 1982 appellee appeared with counsel before an investigating grand jury. Appellee was not indicted or arrested at that time.

From November 1983 to March 1984 appellee's brother Jeffrey DeBlase cooperated with the Commonwealth and wore a body wire when he talked with appellee. A number of the conversations between Jeffrey and Thomas DeBlase were recorded. Appellee was not arrested at that time.

Rather, the Commonwealth did not move against appellee until May of 1985. Additional information was supplied by one Arthur Hall, who asserted that he had been present at the murder. Based on this information, appellee was arrested and charged on May 11, 1985 with the murder of his uncle, David Swinehart.

Appellee moved to suppress the tapes of the conversations between himself and Mrs. Swinehart, as well as the conversations taped by the police when appellee's brother was wearing a body wire. The lower court received testimony and heard argument. The court entered an order granting the suppression of the contents of tape recordings of Mrs. Swinehart's conversations with appellee, as well as the contents of the tape recordings made as a result of the body wire worn by Jeffrey DeBlase. The court denied suppression of the statements appellee made to police.

The Commonwealth appeals from the order granting the suppression and advances two arguments: 1) that reason and justice require that, within the narrow limits of the facts presented in the case, statements obtained as the result of the wiretap of Mrs. Swinehart's phone should be admissible as evidence during the prosecution of a first degree murder case, and 2) that since defendant had not been arrested and no critical stage of the prosecution was involved, the right to counsel did not attach. Accordingly, the Commonwealth believes that the statements obtained as a result of the consensual body wire should be admissible against the defendant at every stage of the trial.

We find no merit in the Commonwealth's first argument regarding the taped conversations of Mrs. Swinehart and appellee. The Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, 18 Pa.C.S. § 5701 et seq., clearly prohibits the kind of activity in which Swinehart was engaged. The Act provides that a person is guilty of a third degree felony if he willfully intercepts any wire or oral communication. 18 Pa.C.S. § 5703. Wire communications include telephone conversations, such as the one here at issue. 18 Pa.C.S. § 5702. The person whose communication is intercepted in violation of the Act has a civil cause of action against the person who intercepted the communication. 18 Pa.C.S. § 5725. At any trial, hearing or adversary proceeding the person whose conversation is intercepted may move to suppress the contents of the intercepted communication. 18 Pa.C.S. § 5721.

The Commonwealth concedes that Swinehart "may" have been subject to criminal proceedings and a civil action for damages for recording the conversations. The Commonwealth asks this Court to create a public policy exception to the Act because the person who violated the Act was murdered. Such an exception is not provided for in the express language of the Act nor do we find that such an exception would be in keeping with the overall structure and provisions of the Act. The communications were intercepted in violation of the Act and were properly suppressed by the trial court.

The Commonwealth's second argument is that appellee was not entitled to suppression due to a violation of his right to counsel. The Commonwealth argues that appellee's right to counsel did not attach when the body wire was used since appellee had not yet been arrested and this was not a critical stage in the prosecution. We agree with the Commonwealth and, accordingly, find this evidence to be admissible.

We note that the conversations obtained through the use of the body wire are not in violation of the Wiretap Act. The police followed the procedures established in section 5704 for the interception. 18 Pa.C.S. § 5704. One of the parties to the communication, Jeffrey DeBlase, consented to the interception in advance. The First Assistant District Attorney of Montgomery County was officially designated by the District Attorney, and reviewed the police request for the body wire and the consent of Jeffrey DeBlase. The Assistant District Attorney determined that the consent was freely and voluntarily given and issued prior approval for the interception.

We now address the constitutional issue raised with respect to the body wire. The right to the assistance of counsel is guaranteed under the sixth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. The United States Supreme Court explained the rationale for this guarantee in Maine v. Moulton, 474 U.S. 159, 106 S.Ct. 477, 88 L.Ed.2d 481 (1985). The Court stated:

The right to the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments is indispensable to the fair administration of our adversarial system of criminal justice. Embodying "a realistic recognition of the obvious truth that the average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect himself," Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 462-463, 82 L.Ed. 1461, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 146 ALR 357 (1938), the right to counsel safeguards the other rights deemed essential for the fair prosecution of a criminal proceeding.

Id., 474 U.S. at ----, 106 S.Ct. at 483-84, 88 L.Ed.2d at 491 (footnote omitted).

Important to the issue before this Court is establishing when the sixth amendment right attaches. In Maine v. Moulton, the Court stated that right is not limited only to the participation of counsel at trial:

Recognizing that the right to the assistance of counsel is shaped by the need for the assistance of counsel, we have found that the right attaches at earlier, "critical" stages in the criminal justice process "where the results might well settle the accused's fate and reduce the trial itself to a mere formality." United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, 224, 18 L.Ed.2d 1149, 87 S.Ct. 1926 (1967) (quoted in United States v. Gouveia, 467 U.S. 180, 189, 81 L.Ed.2d 146, 104 S.Ct. 2292 (1984)).

Id. 474 U.S. at ----, 106 S.Ct. at 484, 88 L.Ed.2d at 492.

Indeed, in Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U.S. 682, 92 S.Ct. 1877, 32 L.Ed.2d 411 (1972) the Court stated that, "it has been firmly established that a person's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment right to counsel attaches only at or after the time that adversary judicial proceedings have been initiated against him." Id., 406 U.S. at 688, 92 S.Ct. at 1881, 32 L.Ed.2d at 417 (citations omitted). The Court explained the reason for this:

The initiation of judicial criminal proceedings is far from a mere formalism. It is the starting point of our whole system of adversary criminal justice. For it is only then that the government has committed itself to prosecute, and only then that the adverse positions of government and defendant have solidified. It is then that a defendant finds himself faced with the prosecutorial forces of organized society, and immersed in the intricacies of substantive and procedural criminal law. It is this point, therefore, that marks the commencement of the "criminal prosecutions" to which alone the explicit guarantees of the Sixth Amendment are applicable.

Id., 406 U.S. at 689-90, 92 S.Ct. at 1882, 32 L.Ed.2d at 417-18 (footnote omitted) (citations omitted). The initiation of adversary judicial criminal proceedings can be "by way of formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or...

To continue reading

Request your trial
14 cases
  • Com. v. DeBlase
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 29, 1995
    ...of the wiretap evidence but reversed the suppression of statements recorded as a result of the body wire. See Commonwealth v. DeBlase, 357 Pa.Super. 71, 515 A.2d 564 (1986). A petition for allocatur was granted by the Supreme Court; but, on January 22, 1988, the appeal was dismissed as havi......
  • People v. Otto, S019773
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 9, 1992
    ...was unlawfully intercepted and therefore inadmissible under section 2515. (Id. at p. 904.) [2 Cal.4th 1111] Com. v. DeBlase (1986) 357 Pa.Super. 71, 515 A.2d 564 presents the same issue on facts strikingly reminiscent of those at bar. A wealthy real estate developer was murdered in January ......
  • Com. v. Kean
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • March 16, 1989 move for the suppression of tape recordings which were unlawfully intercepted by private citizens. See Commonwealth v. DeBlase, 357 Pa.Super. 71, 74, 515 A.2d 564, 566 (1986) (interpreting 18 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 5721 (Purdon 1983)). Appellants, however, have waived the issue of whether a......
  • Com. v. DeBlase
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • February 23, 1994
    ...of the wiretap evidence but reversed the suppression of statements recorded as a result of the body wire. See: Commonwealth v. DeBlase, 357 Pa.Super. 71, 515 A.2d 564 (1986). A petition for allocatur was granted by the Supreme Court; but, on January 22, 1988, the appeal was dismissed as hav......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT