Judge dismisses vandalism charges
By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN, Staff Writer
WEST CHESTER — The Chester County District Attorney’s Office withdrew vandalism charges against three former Avon Grove High School students Monday.
The decision came after a judge ruled prosecutors could not use evidence, including spray paint cans and baseball bats, gathered from a car after state police stopped the suspects.
The two troopers who stopped the suspects lacked proper cause to pull the car over, Judge David Bortner ruled.
The troopers said they had stopped the vehicle because they were concerned about an air freshener hanging from a rear-view mirror.
Joseph Alan Mitchell, 18, of New London, and Joseph Christopher Knapp, 19, and Matthew Robert Schuster IV, 19, both of Franklin, were charged with institutional vandalism of an education facility, criminal mischief and related offenses
following a spate of vandalism at the high school and other properties.
Obscene drawings and profanities, the least offensive of which read “Avon Grove Sucks” had been spray-painted in orange on the school’s main sign, exterior walls and front door. The damage was signed “Class of 09.”
All three suspects were seniors at the high school at the time and were listed on a June 16 commencement program as graduates.
At two homes in London Grove, police discovered more vandalism, including damage to a BMW belonging to the father of a classmate of the trio.
On a sign at a development in Franklin, police found more orange spray paint, including a Nazi swastika and racial slurs.
The vandalism apparently took place on the night of June 9 into the morning of June 10.
State police stopped Mitchell, Knapp, and Schuster in a 1999 Ford Escort driven by Mitchell about 2:30 a.m. June 10 at Hess Mill and Conrad Mill roads in Franklin for the alleged vehicle code violation.
The troopers said Mitchell smelled of alcohol and was changing his shirt in the car before he ran away after police ordered him out of the car.
Also smelling of alcohol, Knapp and Schuster both had traces of orange spray paint on their arms and wrists, court records say.
In the car’s trunk, police found two cans of orange spray paint and two baseball bats.
Knapp and Schuster were charged that night; Mitchell surrendered to police on June 10.
Defense attorneys for the three suspects filed suppression motions challenging the stop.
After a hearing in December, Bortner last month agreed the traffic stop had been illegal and that evidence found because of it — the spray paint cans, bats, and orange paint on Knapp and Schuster — could not be used at trial.
After the ruling, Assistant District Attorney Jessica Gonzalez asked Bortner to dismiss the vandalism charges against the men, which the judge did Monday. It would have been a significant obstacle for her to prove the vandalism case against the men without the evidence from the car.
“My client is very pleased with the outcome of this case, and I’m very satisfied that the system works,” said Mitchell’s attorney, Alexander Silow of West Chester.
Attempts to reach Gonzalez for comment Monday were unsuccessful.
According to Bortner’s order, the reason for his dismissal was the troopers’ statement that they had stopped the car because of the air freshener.
Hanging from the interior rear-view mirror, the air freshener was shaped like a palm tree and was about the size of a person’s hand.
State law prohibits anything from being displayed in the front windshield of a vehicle that would “materially obstruct” the driver’s view.
In his affidavit, Trooper Joshua Bryer said he stopped the car because of the air freshener. But at the suppression hearing, both Bryer and Trooper Bernie Mullen testified they did not know at first that the object in the window was an air freshener.
Mullen told Bortner that he had observed what appeared to be an obstruction to the front windshield and that he had asked his partner, “Did you see that obstruction?”
Bortner said evidence at the hearing indicated the air freshener had not “materially” obstructed the view from the windshield and thus could not constitute a safety hazard.
The judge said the troopers could not tell the thickness or size of the item, nor could they see whether it was swinging back and forth.
Bortner also noted it is not illegal in Pennsylvania to hang something from a rear view mirror.
The troopers did not have a reasonable belief that a law was being broken by the presence of an air freshener, Bortner found.
“The record does not support the conclusion that the officers possessed enough information from what was observed to form such a reasonable belief,” the judge ruled.
Mitchell remains charged with escape and resisting arrest during the traffic stop. Those charges were filed separately from the institutional vandalism offenses. Silow said he was assessing the status of that case and had not decided on how to proceed.
Schuster was represented by attorney Thomas Bellwoar of West Chester.
Knapp was represented by attorney Marc Sacchetta of Media.