A Monroe County judge threw out confessions of a special education teacher who admitted she stole cash and credit cards from fellow teachers, ruling her statements were coerced by police.
Stating the interrogation of Patricia McCarthy at Pocono Mountain Elementary Center was “extremely coercive in nature” Judge Peter J. O’Brien said last week Det. Christopher Wagner of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department failed to read McCarthy her Miranda rights.
Judge O’Brien, of the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas, said Wagner should have read McCarthy her rights, especially after she was denied permission to call her husband and a lawyer.
McCarthy, a special education teacher working for Colonial Intermediate Unit 20, faces 24 felony charges relating to the alleged thefts.
Although McCarthy signed a form stating that she knew she was not under arrest and was free to leave at any time, O’Brien said the “failure of the detective to administer the (Miranda) warnings renders both the verbal and written statements made by the defendant on Jan. 24, 2002, inadmissible.”
Police charged McCarthy with stealing credit cards and cash from the purses of five teachers who work in the unit, and making dozens of purchases with the proceeds and the credit cards.
Principal Regina Schank called police after receiving several reports of thefts from teachers’ handbags.
Det. Wagner focused on McCarthy because of similarities between her handwriting and credit card receipts.
Police charged that McCarthy used the cards at Wal-Mart, three Mr. Z’s stores, Ames, Kmart and two Fashion Bug stores.
Det. Wagner said he was able to secure 21 receipts that, police charge, were signed by McCarthy, who is 43 and lives in Bartonsville.
According to O’Brien, McCarthy told Det. Wagner at one point, “I’ll take the blame for the whole thing,” and she wrote a statement saying she took a credit card from teacher Jessica Jackson’s desk “to buy food for my family.”
McCarthy said she also stole teacher Maria Yanochik’s credit card and used it many times.
She said she was being treated for severe depression. McCarthy concluded her written statement saying, “It is frustrating not be able to understand why I did this, but I am willing to make restitution.”
O’Brien said Det. Wagner “pulled his chair up close to the Defendant, thereby preventing her from exiting the principal’s office and refused to allow her to call her husband or an attorney during the interview.”
O’Brien added that the refusals “leads us to the conclusion that the defendant was in custody.”
“From the outset, Detective Wagner possessed the attitude that Ms. McCarthy was guilty no matter what she said to the contrary,” O’Brien noted. He said the detective pushed McCarthy continually by stating that he knew she was guilty.
McCarthy had denied her first involvement in the thefts during her first interview with Wagner, and said she, too, had her credit card stolen.
Later, after comparing signatures, Wagner questioned her again and, under pressure from Wagner, McCarthy began to back down from her denials.
At one point, the detective suggested that if she would admit to just one charge, it would prevent her from having her teacher’s license suspended.
McCarthy is free on $25,000 unsecured bail, and is on leave from her teaching job.
The DA appealed the case and lost. This case set an important precedent which has been cited in many cases since. You can read the Superior Court’s opinion at 820 A.2d 757 (2003). The following article appeared after the Superior Court decision:
TEACHER’S CONFESSION COERCED BY POLICE, COURT RULES
The confessions of a teacher accused of stealing from fellow teachers were coerced by a Pocono Mountain Regional police detective, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled this week.
The appeals court agreed with Judge Peter J. O’Brien of the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas that the confession of Patricia McCathy, 43, of Bartonsville, was “not freely and openly given.”
O’Brien’s decision was unsuccessfully appealed to the Superior Court of Monroe County District Attorney Mark Pazuhanich.
The case against McCarthy was built largely on her confession.
The Superior Court ruled that McCarthy, who maintains her innocence, was wrongly pressured to confess.
Both courts found McCarthy was effectively detained by police, but was never read her rights by Detective Christopher Wagner.
McCarthy was a special education teacher assigned to the Pocono Mountain Elementary Center.
She is on leave from the job pending resolution of the case.
The judges determined Wagner denied McCarthy permission to call her husband and a lawyer in the midst of her interrogation, even after she asked to make the calls.
“Wagner admitted that his purpose in the return interview was to get (McCarthy) to confess.”
The judges said Wagner threatened to handcuff her and lead her out of the room in from of her friends if she did not confess.
McCarthy said, “Look, I just want my attorney,” but Wagner refused the request.
McCarthy worked as a special education teacher for Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 and was accused of taking and using the credit cards of other teachers.
Intermediate unit teachers do not work for the school district. They handled special education teaching duties for various area districts on a contract basis.
Police charged McCarthy with stealing credit cards and cash from the purses of five teachers and of making dozens of purchases.
McCarthy denied any involvement in the thefts during her first interview with Wagner and said she, too, had her credit card stolen.
Later, after comparing signatures, Wagner questioned her again and, under pressure, McCarthy made the confessions that have been suppressed by the court.
After losing the appeal, the District Attorney realized he had no evidence tying Ms. McCarthy to the theft, and dropped the charges.