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How Pennsylvania State Police conduct illegal searches


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Joseph Darius Jaafari
August 31, 2020
Highway 'stop and frisk,' two deaths at a county jail, tears for T'Challa, and a new-music playlist for your Mondays.
When Fred Barajas was pulled over for speeding on I-81, a Pennsylvania State Police trooper issued him a warning. Afterwards, the officer didn't tell him he was free to go, and instead kept questioning him and ended up calling in a K9 unit. One of the reasons for the trooper calling in the dogs: Barajas had a large dollar-sign tattoo behind his right ear. The search turned up over 1,000 THC vaping cartridges, but the resulting charges were pleaded down. Why? Because the search was challenged as being illegal. And that's not uncommon, according to a new investigation by Spotlight PA and The Appeal.

THE CONTEXT: Police say these stops and searches effectively uncover drugs and weapons, but our review found many of them eventually get thrown out in court. In addition, there is no way to tell how many of them turn up nothing illegal, because state police don’t keep track of them or their outcomes. Defense and civil rights attorneys and educators compare the searches to a version of highway stop-and-frisk, where troopers pull over as many people as possible for small traffic violations in order to find drugs in some instances, thus justifying all of the stops. By casting a wide net, however, certain people may be disproportionately targeted despite having done nothing wrong.

THE SOLUTION: Justice advocates and experts who study police training say that prosecutors can influence officers' actions simply by not trying cases where they don't provide sufficient probable cause to have conducted a search. This would force police to be more specific in their reason for a search, which would make cases less likely to be thrown out once brought before a judge.

Have you had a similar experience with state or local police? Send us a note.

"We're right in the middle of it." — Dr. Lori Frasier, chief of Penn State Children's Hospital's child abuse pediatrics division, on the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on child abuse
POST IT: @andreabillordo_ overlooks Mount Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.
TRANSPO TROUBLES: The state Department of Transportation is at a financial crossroads due to the coronavirus, the Post-Gazette reports. The legislature appeared ready to deal with long-standing issues, including how money is diverted to pay for the state police. It is now up in the air.

TWO INMATES DEAD: After two inmates died within a week of each other at the Dauphin County Prison near Harrisburg, Director of Corrections Brian Clark has been suspended pending an investigation, PennLive reports

FELONIES FOR A MURAL: The police officer who shot and killed Romir Talley in Wilkinsburg last December called in a complaint to the city against four artists who were painting a mural in honor of Talley. The artists are now being charged with felonies, WESA reports.   

'YOU'RE NOT BRAVE': Another mural, this one in Philadelphia dedicated to slain city Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III, was recently defaced with an anti-police message. His sister told The Inquirer it "doesn't help," and the city's police commissioner called those responsible a "coward."

GAPING LOOPHOLE: Environmental groups got a big win last week when a federal appeals court tossed out a regulation allowing plants to emit nitrogen oxides, a pollutant that builds ozone and causes breathing issues in communities when exposed, StateImpact reports.
TAKE 5: Many of us didn't see people of color portraying superheroes growing up. But for millions of Black kids (and adults), Chadwick Boseman –– who died Friday of colon cancer –– gave them that chance as King T'Challa in "Black Panther" (a heck of a movie if you haven't seen it). Take a few minutes to listen to what his performance meant to terminally ill children with cancer. And if you really want a tear-jerker, here's a photo of a young kid putting on a memorial for King T'Challa. Rest in power, Chadwick. 

DISTANCED DATING: The cooler weather is a sign for many singles: It's close to the beginning of cuffing season. For those of you who are itching for some romance –– but also being responsible during the pandemic –– this year will be difficult, to say the least. But The Inquirer put together some socially distanced dating ideas outside of hiking. The list is limited to Philly, but (take it from me) these all can be done even in the more remote parts of the state. 

SPEAKING OF COOLER TEMPERATURES: This year's drought might make for a less spectacular and colorful fall, says Marc Abrams, a professor of forest ecology and physiology at Penn State. However, he told PennLive, that could change if the rain returns.

WHAT TO WATCH ... If you're attempting to cook octopus without a grill: I'm an absolute seafood snob. No joke, I once traveled to Spain just to eat five kinds of octopus, which is my favorite food. Unfortunately, I live in an apartment with no grill. So, when I recently attempted to make octopus tacos with my pup as my co-chef, it didn't go well. Luckily, my friends at VICE got me to try this technique out at home. Pro tip: Don't use plastic tongs. 

RANDOM PLAYLIST FOR THE MONDAYS: I'm an indie-music freak, which means I subscribe to all the Coachella playlists. It also means that Mondays are my least productive days, spending most of it searching for new music. So, if you're like me and very much into finding new music every month, I highly recommend subscribing to Bialock's Indie/Rock Playlist, or BIRP! Check it out on Spotify.
Unscramble and send your answer to newsletters@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out the winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Friday's answer: Bologna

Congrats to our weekly winner Mary Ann M. who will receive some awesome Spotlight PA swag!

Congrats to our Friday winners: Neal W., Dom A., Beth M., Cathy B., Teri B., Heidi G., Thomas B., Debra S., David I., George S., Stuart K., Lynne E., Joe S., Linda E., John C., Mary Ann M., Jeffrey S., Ann and John, Linda P., Craig S., Caitlin M., Jill A., Bob M., Cory N., Jan C., Diane O., Gail H., Kelly K., Elaine W., Chris H., and Chris W.
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

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