We all have a list of things that only happen to other people. For most of us, getting arrested is on that list. But, life being what life is, and situations sometimes moving beyond our control, when that thing that you never thought could happen, happens to you or to a family member, it can be a pretty big shock.
For most residents or others who get arrested in Mt. Lebanon, it is not the end of the world. Some unpleasantness, sure. Some expense, definitely. But most of the crime here is pretty low-level, and the consequences often are, too.
“Most of the arrests we make are related to drugs and alcohol,” says Police Chief Aaron Lauth. “Possession of drugs, DUI; also most of the disorderly conduct and harassment arrests stem from drug or alcohol abuse.” Retail thefts and burglaries are often fueled by drug habits as well, Lauth says.
A look at arrests and citations over the summer supports Lauth’s statement: The largest categories were 15 DUIs, 13 controlled substance possessions, 13 for underage drinking (graduation party season), 11 for disorderly conduct, 10 for public intoxication and eight for harassment. The police also made arrests for theft and retail theft (5), outstanding warrants (4), criminal mischief (3), burglary (3), endangering the welfare of a child (2), aggravated assault (2), and one arrest for simple assault. In Pennsylvania, aggravated assault is violence with a weapon, but it also can be violence against a police or other court officer.
Most calls, street stops and other interactions between police and the public are resolved peacefully, Lauth says: “Whatever the situation, we want to resolve it with a minimum of inconvenience and aggravation. We don’t want things to escalate. If everyone stays calm and respectful, he says, the likely outcome is a citation rather than an arrest.
A police officer is bound by law to investigate anything he or she thinks is illegal. A suspect’s guilt or innocence is not assigned by the officer, Lauth stresses; the time to make your case is in front of the judge.
“If someone argues with the officer, it can escalate the situation and create an atmosphere where others may be concerned about their safety,” he says. “In court, the officer presents his observations and reasons for stopping you, and you present your side.”
Still, the situation on the scene needs to be resolved. “If we need to make an arrest to remove a person from a volatile situation, we have that discretion,” Lauth says.
He adds, however, that his officers try to avoid putting handcuffs on someone. “There’s lots that can go wrong,” he says. “There can be injuries on both sides, property damage…we choose not to go that route, but sometimes it’s inevitable.”
Once the police make an arrest, they are responsible for the suspect’s well being while in custody. There are holding cells in the Public Safety Building. When anyone is lodged in a cell, an officer is assigned to keep watch, which could be a physical check or a periodic check via video camera.
A misconception many people have is of someone “sleeping it off” in a cell. If a suspect is intoxicated or otherwise unable to care for himself, the police make every attempt to call a relative or friend to take responsibility and get them home safely.
“It’s not our goal to have you here,” Lauth says. “We have all kinds of potential liability when we have someone in custody, so we try to avoid that whenever we can.”
Most of the time, Lauth says, the key to keeping an incident from escalating is attitude.
“When we pull you over, when we stop you in the street or come to your house, you’re probably going to be a little angry about it,” he says. “We have a job to do, and if we’re showing you respect, you should also respect us.”
David Shrager, a criminal defense attorney, agrees with Lauth.
“If you’re pulled over, remain calm,” he says. “Don’t make any sudden moves. The officer doesn’t know if you’re a threat, so be polite and comply.”
At the same time, Shrager says, you need to protect your rights. If an officer asks to search your vehicle, Shrager suggests
saying “No.” “If they could search your vehicle without your permission—if they could search your house without permission, they would just go ahead and do it,” he explains. “They wouldn’t ask.”
After refusing permission to search, Shrager says, the next step should be calling a lawyer.
“If you’re being detained and questioned, ask, ‘Am I free to go?’” If the answer is yes, then go, but if the answer is no, or you don’t get a straight answer, you need to ask for a lawyer.”
Regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of good intentions, Shrager says that anyone being questioned by the police should answer them through an attorney.
“We spend a lot of time educating our clients about what the legal system is really like, as opposed to what they’ve seen on TV,” says Shrager.
Your one phone call? No. You don’t get a phone call. That Miranda warning, which if they don’t read when they arrest you, you magically get off scot-free? Again, no. The police do need to advise a suspect in custody of his or her rights before questioning, but failure to “Mirandize” someone doesn’t mean the arrest doesn’t count.
“If you’re in custody and you ask for a lawyer, the police are required to stop asking you questions,” says Shrager. “If a client of mine makes statements to the police without consulting me, they could do damage to themselves. Damage that I may not be able to undo.
“The police have a job to do,” he says. “Their job is to elicit confessions. Our job is to protect your rights and see that you get good representation. So be polite, be respectful, and say as little as possible.”
Once someone has been arrested, the next step is arraignment. This is when you appear before a magistrate who will set bail if the charges are serious enough. Where the arraignment takes place largely depends on the time the arrest happens.
“If it’s in the daytime, through the week, typically we can do it right here,” says Lauth. The arrestees are brought before District Justice Blaise Larotonda. Evenings and weekends, Larotonda’s Washington Road courtroom is closed, so the arraignments happen in Pittsburgh Municipal Court, handily located next to the Allegheny County Jail. The court is open around the clock and is staffed by judges and a rotation of magistrates, including Larotonda.
“The worst time to get arrested is after hours,” Larotonda says. “The courts are backed up, and you’ll sit in jail for maybe as long as five or 10 hours.”
The next step is a magistrate setting your bail. A bail bond is a promise to appear for your court date. The bond can be money, which you forfeit if you fail to appear for a hearing, or you can simply be released with your promise to return. Larotonda says he considers a number of factors when setting bail, including the seriousness of the crime, whether the person has a criminal history and if he/she has failed to appear at previous court hearings. Unless the crime is serious or there are other mitigating factors, someone arrested for the first time most likely will not have to put up a money bond.
Again, and this is shaping up as a theme here, Larotonda says, the more respectful your attitude, the smoother your court appearance will go.
At the arraignment, a date is set for the preliminary hearing, where Larotonda reviews the information the arresting officer and district attorney present and determines if there is enough to warrant a trial. “I’m here to determine evidence,” he says, “but in some situations we can still agree to a plea deal right here.”
Mirroring the arrest log, the overwhelming majority of Larotonda’s cases involve drug or alcohol abuse. Instead of fines and jail time, he often works to get an offender into a treatment program and set goals that, when achieved, can lessen or eliminate punishment. “We’re here to help if we can,” he says. “This is a situation nobody wants to be in.”