Sunday, June 15, 2008

Let's make a deal

There's been a lot of discussion over the past few days about Hanover Township Police Chief James Geho's handling of an underage drinking party in his area. More than two dozen minors were caught at the party on May 11, and to date, not a single charge has been filed. Not against the kids involved. Not against the adults who presumably bought the alcohol for them. Geho's idea of justice in this case, according to a township supervisor, was to hold a meeting with the kids and their parents, and then order the youths to perform community service. This kind of closed-door, non-judicial handling of a criminal case smells funny. I'm not all that concerned about kids over the age of 18 having a few beers, provided they're staying in one place and not out on the roads. At 18, they can legally do pretty much anything else in this country, including getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan. If they're adults in every other regard, they should be allowed to have a cold one. But it's an entirely different thing if we're taking about 14, 15 or 16-year-olds, and whatever the case may be, the law is the law, and it's simply wrong for Geho to take the matter into his own hands. It was just over a year ago when a former Hanover officer was sentenced to jail for strong-arming an 18-year-old girl into participating in sex acts in exchange for not getting charged with DUI. This is not to assert that Geho would engage in something like that, but when you create an atmosphere of "let's make a deal" and keep these matters out of court, you're asking for trouble. This whole thing has the stink of a cover-up about it. When asked about the party four days after the fact, Geho said, "I don't know anything about it." Either he's incredibly disconnected from what's going on in his department, or he was lying. Obviously, if those over the age of 18 were to face charges in court, their names would become public. Same for the adult buyers of the alcohol. Who is Geho protecting here? A friend? A family member? No one; he's just a nice guy? Well, we don't know, and that's the problem. And Geho, of course, refuses to comment on his actions. I'm not an authority on Pennsylvania criminal statutes, but I'm pretty sure that police chiefs are not given the authority to impose their own criminal sentences for violations of the law, big or small. And we should also remember that Hanover Township makes a lot of money policing drinking and other offenses at nearby P-G Pavilion. Should they just hire Monte Hall to cut deals with violators out there, as well? And one has to assume that there have been other incidents of underage drinking handled by Hanover police. Were those people given the option of community service, or weren't they the "right" people? Township supervisors and the office of District Attorney Steve Toprani are both looking into this matter. Both need to tell Chief Geho that his one-man justice system won't be tolerated any longer.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smells a bit like Mayberry justice: make Opie sweep up the jailhouse, but don't tell Aunt Bee. I agree that community service is a good solution, but it should have been handled publicly.

June 16, 2008 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Brant said...

Exactly. I have no problem with the punishment, itself. But when you engage in backroom justice, you threaten the public's trust in what you do. This time, it's some kids having a few beers. Next time? And we must remember that in Mayberry, Sheriff Taylor was also justice of the peace. Busy man. And Aunt Bee's fried chicken? Mmmmmmm. From what I hear, it was worth getting jailed for.

June 16, 2008 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger PRIguy said...

A great day in Mayberry was one during which Aunt Bea had fried chicken for lunch, a pie cooling in the window, and Otis wasn't sleeping one off in the lone jail cell.

I agree with both of you. Community service is a fine punishment. There's a team of police here in Richmond that routinely scours subdivisions for illicit parties. Invariably, community service is meted out as punishment. Most of the time, these parties are held in some of the nicer neighborhoods, and the kids are of high school age. But the punishments are handed out by a judge after a hearing.

Township politics is an even messier business than regular politics, so methinks this sheriff has "some 'splainin' to do." Something's not right.

June 16, 2008 at 12:40 PM  
Blogger Dale Lolley said...

As somebody who was still under the age of 21 when Pa. enacted its current underage drinking laws, I feel the deal stinks.
When I was in college, the police raided an on-campus party I was at. I was two months shy of turning 21 and everyone at the party was over the age of 18.
Yet everyone who was "arrested" at the party was guilty in the eyes of the law and lost their driver's license.
Since they never, in fact, tested any of us for alcohol consumption – and I needed to drive to my off-campus job – I fought the charges. The local DJ rubber-stamped the charges.
But on appeal at a court not in the town the college was located in, the judge was incredulous that the charges had gotten that far. The three of us who appealed the convictions had the charges dropped – which, of course, happened after I had turned 21.

In this case, it looks like the kids involved were friends of the chief and he cut them a break. We don't know that for sure, but unless they let due process run its course here, that's what we have to assume.

June 16, 2008 at 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consistency in the justice system is important, or did I miss something in civics?

June 16, 2008 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Roger said...

I agree with your assessment, Brant. The handling of the incident sounds out of order. I know there are those who attempt to justify the actions of the kids as just another after-prom party, everybody drinks, the kids gave an adult their keys, the naysayers drank when they were young and need to look in the mirror, and other similar perspectives. But, that is not the issue here. Rather than quibble with the incident itself in terms of the actions of the kids, the real question is how the judicial process was handled. For whatever reason, which has yet to be explained, the chief decided to be all-encompassing in his approach and disposal of the matter. Who gives the chief this authority?

Don't get me wrong on a couple of points. I usually am fully supportive of police officers, their work and the need of their presence. In no way can I be considered a "cop-basher." So, for me to question these actions of the chief is not my usual response.

Also, I am not condoning the illegal activity of the kids, the adult who provided the alcohol. Nor, am I supporting their desire to want to have a party after their prom. I have issues with some of these points, but that is not the point of consideration in this case.

If the chief chooses to make his own judgments in this case, what is the next case he will choose to dispense justice? Some might say, this is a minor incident, and he did well to take swift action. If the next case is one of manslaughter, and he chooses to do the same, would he be questioned? Or, how about if the case was one involving a home invasion?

As mentioned in previous posts, the judicial process has an order. When somebody chooses to work outside those bounds, the process suddenly becomes chaos and inconsistent. One of the primary concerns we have as citizens is consistency in how legal matters are handled. In some cases, the consistency is lacking, and we hear an outcry. If every chief is given an option to impose their own penalties upon offenders, we set ourselves up for gross inconsistencies.

Is it true that the Washington County DA is investigating the matter? Does the DA hold authority over the local police chiefs and their decisions on how their departments are operating with regard to enforcing of laws and handling of offenders? Local council bodies have some authority over police chiefs, but is their authority limited to administrative matters? Can somebody help out with the chain of authority over local police departments?

June 17, 2008 at 6:57 AM  
Blogger Brant said...

From what I know, the DA's office is investigating, and I would guess that the DA, perhaps with the help of officers from other jurisdictions that responded to the drinking party, could bring his own charges in this case. I believe the township supervisors meet this Thursday, and I'm pretty sure this issue will come up. Look in the Friday O-R for that story. I'm not sure how much the supervisors can involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the police department, but it's certainly within their power to fire a chief of police, if warranted. I'm hearing all kinds of rumors about how this case was handled, and when citizens only get rumors about closed-door "justice," they legitimately question the integrity of the way police handled the case. In other words, can the people trust their police chief? If they can't, the township has a real problem.

June 17, 2008 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Roger said...

So, what happened at the Thursday night Council meeting in Hanover? I saw no report. Or, did the meeting not happen this week?

June 20, 2008 at 8:50 PM  

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