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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently accepted the case of Commonwealth vs. Spence, on appeal from the Superior Court.  This criminal case involves the issue of whether eavesdropping on a speaker-phone telephone call constitutes a violation of Pennsylvania’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.  The outcome of this case will have a significant impact on the introduction of electronic communication evidence in all types of cases, including family law cases.

In this situation, the confidential informant was a high school student arrested for illegal possession of prescription drugs.  The student was enlisted as an informant to try to arrest the dealer.  In doing so, a Pennsylvania State Trooper with the Philadelphia Vice Narcotics Unit had the C.I. call the dealer; put the phone on speakerphone in the trooper’s presence and order Percocet, OxyCotin, and Xanax.  The dealer was to deliver them in person to a local Wawa.  Upon the dealer’s arrival, the police were waiting and he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver, as well as a count of possession of drug paraphernalia.

 

At the criminal trial, the Delaware County Prosecutor had asked for a mistrial because they realized they needed to utilize the direct testimony of the confidential informant.  During that break between trials, the defendant filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence on the basis that the State Trooper had violated the Wiretap Act and that any evidence derived from that violation was barred from introduction into evidence.  The trail court judge agreed; the District Attorney’s office appealed and the Superior Court judges agreed with the trial court, leading to another appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

 

The impact of this decision will reach beyond criminal cases.  A decision upholding the suppression of this evidence would mean that any time a person overhears a conversation on speakerphone that the potential would exist that that information could be suppressed presumably due to the speaker’s lack of knowledge or consent to expose the info beyond the intended recipient.  Family law litigation often employs the testimony and evidence from individuals who have overheard conversations or recorded conversations (in person) with an unknowing speaker.  The difference between a legal recording and an illegal recording can be a very fine line; the outcome of this case will further shape how electronic recordings are used and whether they will remain a legally reliable method for collecting evidence.

 

Additional information about this case can be found in "The Legal Intelligencer," May 3, 2013, Volume 247, No. 86.

 

 

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(Photo by Indi Samarajiva)

 

The Pennsylvania Support Rules were recently amended on December 30, 2012.  Rule 1910.29, formalizes the presentation of support evidence for Family Law Cases.  Anecdotally, the Rules of Evidence may not always be strictly adhered to in family law cases due to probative value of some forms of evidence weighed against the cost and difficulty of verifying it or authenticating it at trial. 

 

Rule 1910.29 attempts to eliminate some of ambiguity about the admissibility of some forms of evidence by providing counsel the opportunity to offer the other side copies of those documents they will be offering into evidence twenty (20) days prior to the hearing.  In doing so, provided the other party does not object to the admission of those documents into evidence, they will be accepted as authentic and admitted into the record.  If an objection is made to the records, then the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence will apply as to the admissibility of those documents into evidence.

 

This rule also standardizes the admission of medical evidence in both record and non-record proceedings, (i.e. proceedings which are not recorded by a court reporter).  Whenever a party raises a medical issue as preventing them from earning income, that party will need to obtain a Physician Verification Form and have their physician fill it out and verify its contents as accurate.  This Physician Verification Form will hopefully eliminate some of the ambiguity for those parties who claim a disability, but conveniently have failed to file for Social Security Disability or worker’s compensation benefits. 

 

If the party who has introduced the Physician Verification Form at the non-record hearing would like to have it entered into the record at the record hearing, then the above rules will apply with giving the other party twenty (20) days notice prior to the hearing and allow the other side the opportunity to file and serve an objection within ten (10) of being served with the document. 

 

By filing an objection, it is likely that the physician will need to testify since there will not be any medical evidence available for the record and if the court deems that the objection to the entry of the Physician Verification Form was frivolous or unnecessary then it is within the court’s discretion under this rule to allocate the costs of the physician’s testimony between the parties.  This portion of the rule is a not-so-subtle suggestion to attorneys to keep their objections substantive and not use objections as means of delay or obstructing the other side’s case.

 

This rule update is a significant change in how evidence is admitted in support actions.  This should help streamline litigants’ ability to offer complicated financial evidence and have objections and questions addressed in advance of the trial, rather than bogging down or delaying the substantive hearing by what amounts to a discovery dispute. 

 

This rule can also have the positive effect of keeping some litigation costs down by allowing a party to produce a non-expert summary and have it pre-approved for admission into evidence, thereby alleviating the need to bring an accountant or other financial expert to court in order to testify as to the information. 

 

Finally, Pennsylvania Family Law procedure varies from county to county and is reliant upon local practice when dealing with a variety of different issues.  This rule update gives some state-wide uniformity to this form of evidence.