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The Defense Never Rests … Even in Summary Cases

August 18, 2017

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

The most important qualities of a Criminal Defense Attorney are the ability and courage to stand up for what is right, to gather evidence, and to have the willingness to fight for your client – even against public opinion. This is true for any type of case, any degree of charge, and any manner of Defendant. Recently, attorney van der Veen had the privilege of representing someone who was being charged with Summary Offenses related to a Dog Bite. Though the charges were relatively minor, van der Veen took the opportunity to do what was right, gather as much evidence as possible, fight for the (wrongly) accused, and win.

A Summary Offense is the lowest level offense under Pennsylvania Law. Proceedings are usually held in one day, with one sitting judge, with each ‘Summary Trial’ lasting no more than a couple of hours. Summary offenses include disorderly conduct, loitering, harassment, low-level retail theft, and others. While no small matter, these offenses are comparatively light in terms of both punishment and ‘what is at stake.’ The harm to the community is also considered smaller than ‘usual’ crimes, and the typical punishment is a fine and/or community service.

The Commonwealth is usually the victor in such cases. Police and official witnesses often draw the trust of the Court much easier than witnesses who appear for the Defendants. Further, because summary cases are less time consuming, most defense attorneys take it as an opportunity to relax: they don’t do the research, hardly open a file, rarely gather any witness statements or exculpatory evidence, and do not think of consulting private investigators or expert witnesses. But, for a trial lawyer, taking the foot off the gas is as repulsive as losing a case.

Recently, Michael van der Veen had the opportunity to fight for a client charged with a summary offense. The Commonwealth charged the Defendant with violating Pennsylvania statutes related to a dog bite. Factually, the Defendant was accused of letting her dog bite another person’s dog while on a walking trail. A complaint rolled in to the local police, and the Commonwealth moved quickly against the Defendant. At stake – fines and potentially the life of the client’s dog.

Attorney van der Veen understands that preparation is the key to winning. Upon accepting the case, he set about to gather as much information as possible, including maps of the area, the specific pathway where the alleged offense occurred, and also background of potential witnesses. He discovered and verified numerous witnesses who were ready to testify that not only was Defendant not present near the scene of the crime, but also that Defendant was actually in a dog park, with her dog, thirty miles away. Van der Veen also uncovered video evidence of the Defendant miles away at the approximate time the dog bite occurred.

He hired a private investigator to scout the neighborhood and find the true source of the dog bite. Eerily similar to the Defendant was another local, who had the same breed of dog, same color hair, and the same body type as the Defendant.

At trial, the Commonwealth started with the belief that the case would be an easy one. They thought they had a strong case. They presented two witnesses with in-court identifications of the Defendant and stated that the Defendant, and her dog, were responsible for the attack. van der Veen’s cross examination was blistering. The Commonwealth rested. It was now van der Veen’s turn.

The Defense started with two alibi witnesses. Both of these witnesses testified that Defendant was miles away at the time of the incident, with her dog, in a dog park. To bolster this presentation, van der Veen also presented exculpatory video evidence of the Defendant with her dog in the dog park. Next, van der Veen called an expert investigator. The investigator testified that a similar-looking dog lived nearby to the trail. Shockingly, the owner of the dog looked incredibly similar to the Defendant. Finally, van der Veen called character witnesses, who testified that Defendant was law-abiding and her dog was not violent.

After hearing and seeing the evidence, the Judge came to a verdict: Not Guilty. Despite the Commonwealth attempts to convict an innocent person, the preparation, tenacity, and skill of a good trial lawyer saved the Defendant from a conviction and saved her dog’s life. The Defense Never Rests… even in Summary Cases.


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