After a 3 1/2 hour hearing before Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Taschner in Palmer Township, all charges have been dismissed against Nazareth's infamous Sticker Gang. Instead of doing a perp walk, Defendants Trevor Gehret, Jeremy Peters and Daniel Logothetis could do an Irish jig as Police Chief Thomas Trachta and Officer Dan Troxell exited the crowded courtroom with their tails between their legs. After hearing an incredibly weak case from seven Commonwealth witnesses, including a police officer who actually testified that placing stickers on parking meters creates a hazardous condition, Judge Taschner reached the only conclusion she possibly could - Not Guilty.
|Dan Troxell does his own perp walk|
That led him to Michele Howey, who said that Logothetis and Peters had each placed a sticker on her car late one evening, with her consent, and that she placed a third sticker herself.
"I didn't think it was that big of a deal," she repeated several times. "It was just a sticker."
But not to Troxell. In addition to having her prepare an unclear written statement in which no one could be certain who admitted to what, he also placed her under subpoena. He even subpoenaed and drove an elderly lady to Judge Taschner's courtroom. She had applied a FT sticker to her walker. He apparently offered her immunity if she'd rat out the gang. Mercifully, she was never called.
|Legal Dream Team With Sticker Gang T-Shirt|
"You brought this woman here to testify without notifying us so we could have someone here who understands American Sign Language?" she asked. Troxell, who was the investigator, had no idea that one of his witnesses is deaf.
Judge Taschner excused Logothetis' mother.
Chief Trachta had previously warned her she could not even speak to her own son. Before the hearing, though, when she was brought in by Troxell, she gave her son a little smile and a thumbs up in the parking lot.
|The Evil Sticker Gang|
Troxell also called Public Works Superintended Robert Reimer, who had an invoice of $970.71 for the sticker clean up. But his invoice was prepared after charges had been filed, and with knowledge that he had to be over $500 for a misdemeanor to stick. He admitted that when the Chief first asked him about the clean up costs, he told him he really had no idea.
Eddie Statler, the road crew guy who spent two days cleaning up the stickers, admitted that one full day was actually spent cleaning Nazareth's 200 parking meters, though only three or four of them had stickers. His expensive cleaning supplies consisted mostly of soap and water.
|Dream Team discusses strategy|
Trachta quietly said, "I'm sorry," the only words he would utter in court
The Sticker Gang was represented by a legal Dream Team of three of the area's most prominent criminal defense attorneys - Phil Lauer, Gary Asteak and Mark Minotti. When they arrived at the courthouse, they introduced themselves to Trachta and tried to shake his hand. He refused. "That's the first time that ever happened to me," noted a baffled Lauer, who has devoted a career to major criminal cases on the federal and state level and is well-respected by law enforcement.
During a brief break in the trial, when Judge Taschner was called out concerning another matter as the night-duty judge, Trachta began coaching Troxell again, despite his previous admonishment. Asteak told Trachta to knock it off or testify himself, and that's when Trachta attempted to stare Asteak down with a menacing look, at least until the judge returned.
It was a grade school staring contest.
Trachta also managed to drum up a victim. In early July, after charges had already been filed, he emailed Joe Korba about a supposed sticker on a Home News distribution box. Korba, who has been plagued by people stealing his coin boxes, was asked to file a complaint. He obliged, though he never actually saw the stickers, and was not even approached until days after they had already been removed.
"We are strong advocates for free speech and the First Amendment," said Korba, as he slowly became aware that he had been duped, thanks to questioning by Attorney Asteak.
As the case developed, there was no real evidence that any of the Sticker Gang members had actually done the dirty deed. But there was evidence that, in addition to manufacturing a victim, Trachta and Troxell tried to get the feds involved. Troxell actually testified that he contacted the United States Attorney's Office for the stickers found on mailboxes, bringing some chuckles from the defense team. Postal Inspectors apparently have better things to do.
The Sticker Gang had been facing misdemeanor criminal mischief charges (eight counts each), as well as disorderly conduct, harassment and eight counts of scattering rubbish.
"Why eight?" asked Attorney Asteak at one point, especially considering the evidence was insufficient for even one count.
Mark Minotti referred Judge Taschner to Superior Court precedent establishing that a prima facie case of criminal mischief was nonexistent. Amazingly, she had already read it and even quoted from it, something that marveled the lawyers after the case was over. Minotti called it a matter of "Our Chief's ego is bruised and we're going to file charges." Echoing Minotti, Asteak told Judge Taschner it is a "political prosecution" representing nothing more than "Trachta's effort to get back at people he views as political foes." Lauer added that there is "no evidence that these people are motivated by anything but their right to free speech." Imposing criminal responsibility on the exercise of free speech is "dangerous," he warned.
"There's nothing here to support the misdemeanor charge," concluded Judge Taschner. "Nothing." She indicated all the evidence from the Commonwealth showed an expression of political belief, not an intent to damage any property.
She then told Chief Trachta that he, like she, is a public figure who has to expect some criticism.
"Suck it up, cupcake!" she advised.
She also tossed the harassment and disorderly conduct charges for much the same reason. That pesky First Amendment kept getting in the way. Mark Minotti, legal scholar for the Dream Team, furnished the judge with another Superior Court decision finding that a person wearing a "Fuck You" T-shirt inside a courtroom is not disorderly, as a matter of law. He noted that disorderly conduct charges cannot be used as a dragnet for all irritations. It is a statute intended to preserve the public peace.
Troxell made a last-ditch effort to get the judge to at least buy a scattering rubbish charge. But he failed there, too. He said he found some stickers in a Valero gas station parking lot, but conceded to Attorney Lauer that he was unable to say how they got there or whether the Sticker Gang was even responsible.
Adopting a clinical approach, Attorney Asteak read the Scattering Rubbish statute, which provides that a person is guilty of an offense if he "causes any waste paper, sweepings, ashes, household waste, glass, metal, refuse or rubbish, or any dangerous or detrimental substance to be deposited into or upon any road, street, highway, alley or railroad right-of-way, or upon the land of another or into the waters of this Commonwealth."
He noted the FT stickers were not waste paper, but pure political speech. He also denied there was any evidence FT stickers were deposited on a road, street, highway, alley or railroad right-of-way, or upon the land of another or into the waters of this Commonwealth.
Quoting from a Thomas Jefferson letter to James Madison, Judge Taschner observed that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." Speaking for herself, the night judge added, "We don't grow as a society unless there's disagreement."
Judge Taschner cut off defense lawyers when they got into the arrest. That's a completely different issue. In late June, when the Sticker Gang was first charged, Trachta made sure to conduct a staged perp walk of them, chained and shackled, in front of an obliging press. It's doubtful that he even had the authority to arrest, let alone conduct a staged perp walk. He forced one of this trio to become homeless. Jeremy Peters had shared a home with his brother, but had to leave as a condition of bail. They were also forced to undergo drug testing, though not one of these defendants has ever been arrested for drug possession or distribution. One of them has never been arrested at all.
It was a malicious prosecution brought by a bully. I suspect this matter will now continue in another arena, thanks to the Borough Council's and Mayor's unwillingness to exercise real oversight of an out-of -control police department.
On the bright side, one of my readers informs me there's already a line at Schubert's bakery for their newest creation - the Trachta cupcake. It's got pink frosting with rainbow sprinkles.
Also, at one point, Attorney Asteak did file a motion to have me ejected, since that seems to happen every time I enter a courtroom and he felt obliged to keep the string going. It was nearly granted, too. He also wondered whether there are any XXXXXL T-shirts that will fit me.