Sunday, September 13, 2009

Attorney Objects to Broad Search Warrant

Man charged in church raid wants evidence suppressed
September 11, 2009 04:06 AM TEXT SIZE By: AMY REVAK
Herald Standard
The attorney for one of the 22 people facing drug-related charges following a raid Aug. 2 at the Church of Universal Love and Music in Bullskin Township has filed a motion asking a judge to suppress evidence against his client.

In a suppression motion filed by attorney Thomas Shaffer, he claims that the search warrant was overly broad and is asking that the charges against his client be dismissed.

Shaffer's client, Jason Cavallo of Woodstock, N.Y., is facing charges of one county of possession with intent to deliver, one count of possession and one count of drug paraphernalia.

Shaffer contends that there is not one mention of an individual named Jason or Jason Cavallo in the probable cause affidavit as using any illegal narcotics or selling any illegal narcotics on either May 16 or July 4 and "there existed no probable cause to support the issuance of the all-persons search warrant."

After an assistant district attorney went to two separate events and saw drug activity at the "church," Fayette County Judge Ralph C. Warman granted a search warrant that covered 42 acres of church land and all of the people on it. It was served Aug. 1.

After the arrests, the church was essentially shut down.

Following a hearing last month, Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose granted a preliminary injunction that will stop the Church of Universal Love and Music from holding any more events until a full hearing that won't occur until months from now.

After hearing testimony, Ambrose ruled that the church's founder, William "Willie" Pritts, either knew or should have known there was "pervasive" drug use on the grounds.

The hearing came about after members of the Fayette County Drug Task Force came armed with a warrant on Aug. 1, and conducted a drug sweep.

The sweep resulted in 22 arrests, and Assistant District Attorney Mark D. Brooks testified that officers seized 76 bags of marijuana, 22 bags of psychedelic mushrooms, 2 bags of hash, several hits of LSD and four large and two small nitrous oxide tanks. Numerous pipes were also seized.

Brooks said the marijuana and mushroom bags ranged from gallon-sized plastic bags to smaller ones.

The use of illegal drugs on the church's property was in violation of a settlement agreement between Pritts, and the county commissioners.


'Funk Fest' suspects from controversial church spend day in court
It took nearly five hours to conduct 19 preliminary hearings Thursday for those facing drug charges after a raid at the Church of Universal Love and Music in Fayette County early last month.

On Aug. 1, the Fayette County Drug Task Force, consisting of nearly 40 officers — including task force members, state police and the county sheriff's office — held the raid at the Bullskin Township nondenominational church where 22 people were arrested during an event that was advertised as a "Funk Fest." Most of those people faced preliminary hearings yesterday at Connellsville District Judge Ronald Haggerty's office.

According to the task force, the raid netted 76 bags of marijuana, 22 bags of psychedelic mushrooms, eight tanks of nitrous oxide, two bags of hashish, several marijuana grinders and digital scales and 1,090 devices used for smoking marijuana.

Among those who waived their right to a preliminary hearing or whose charges were held for court yesterday included: Taressa Lyne King, 22, of Huntingdon; Brian King, 47, of Swedsboro, N.J.; Michele Sedota, 21, of Pittsburgh; Paul Vincent Uber, 39, and Beth Ann Uber, 45, both of Northeast, Pa.; Jerome Frank McNeill, 31, of Pittsburgh; Nicholas Adam Dayton, 22, of Callipolis, Ohio; Richard Steven Nagan, 53, of Bronx, N.Y.; Charles Bruce McCord, 29, of Frostburg, Md.; Jason Frank Cavallo, 24, of Saugraties, N.Y.; Ryan Christopher Burrer, 21, of Athens, Ohio; Jason Allen Nicholson, 26, of Everson; Alfred Jack Grimm, 23, of Connellsville; and Patrick Thomas Nicholson, 24, of Normalville.

A charge of possession with intent to deliver was dropped against Ryan Christopher Burrer, 21, of Athens, Ohio. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing on charges of possession of a controlled substance and use of drug paraphernalia.

Other defendants, like Philip Anthony Bannon, 24, of Bethel Park; Megan Lynanne Lupher, 47, of Greensburg; and Betsy Pearl Wadsworth, 37, of Greensburg arrived to court without a lawyer or a public defender. They waived their right to a hearing or legal representation to county court, where they will need representation.

During an exchange with Haggerty, Lupher said there were two reasons she didn't need an attorney.

"One, I can't afford one; and two, I'm not guilty, so I don't need an attorney," she said.

It was later explained to her that public defenders are provided free of charge for those who cannot afford an attorney.

Adam Joseph Klimas, 29, of Parkersburg, W.Va., had additional charges added to his original charges of two counts of possession of a controlled substance and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia to include two possession with intent to deliver charges. Police found two gallon-capacity plastic bags with marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms along with multiple smaller bags of marijuana and mushrooms, two digital scales and a package of sandwich bags in his possession.

One of the defense attorneys, Thomas W. Shaffer, filed a motion to suppress evidence seized in the raid, and asked that all charges against his client, Jason Cavallo, be dismissed.

Shaffer unsuccessfully argued that the search warrant only included the church property, and did not include the names of the individuals arrested at the venue.

Fayette County Assistant District Attorney Mark Brooks argued that such a motion is not district court.

The summer concert season ended Aug. 13 when U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose banned events at its site until she decides whether the church broke an agreement with the county in which organizers agreed to keep drugs out of its events.

In issuing a preliminary injunction against the church, Ambrose said its seems likely the county will win its claim the church violated the March agreement that settled an earlier lawsuit.

Owner William Pritts and the church sued the county in 2006 after county officials repeatedly denied his requests to rezone his 158-acre property so he could stage outdoor concerts there. At the time, county officials said Pritts founded the church in 2002 as a way to skirt zoning laws; the county paid Pritts $75,000 to settle his claims of religious discrimination.

Part of the agreement, however, required Pritts and the church to prevent drug use during concerts.

Church questions search warrant
August 04, 2009 03:51 AM TEXT SIZE By: JENNIFER HARR
Herald Standard

Two days after a raid at the Church of Universal Love and Music in Bullskin Township, an attorney for the church has leveled allegations that the search warrant that allowed police to come onto the grounds was overreaching, and that Fayette County officials are unfairly targeting the church.

Although he had yet to read the warrant issued by Fayette County Judge Ralph C. Warman, attorney Gregory Koerner said Monday that the enforcement action "violates the spirit of our agreement with the county" as it relates to the settlement in the federal lawsuit.

"We feel that the church's rights were violated, and the county acted in bad faith," Koerner said. "The warrants were defective in several ways, the search was outrageously outside the scope of the warrant and excessive."

Members of the county's drug task force and state police arrested 23 people and seized drugs and paraphernalia on the grounds of the church in Acme on Saturday evening. The church's founder, Willie Pritts, had sued the county several years ago when the church, which bases it s worship on jam band-type music, was denied zoning several times.

The matter resolved in March, when the county agreed to allow Pritts a designated number of concerts per year, with several stipulations. One of those was that there be no illegal activity - specifically drug use - on the grounds.

District Attorney Nancy D. Vernon said the search warrant was based on two undercover officers who twice went to the grounds. There, she said, they bought LSD (acid), marijuana and cereal treats and brownies laced with marijuana. She said that police also saw people using drugs and vendors selling paraphernalia.

She scoffed at Koerner's claim that officers pointed machine guns at children, noting that no weapons of any kind were pointed at children, and that the directive was that officers avoid the use of any physical violence.

"I believe the children were exposed to much more danger when they were around Rice Krispies treats with THC, brownies made with 'church butter' and people who were high on LSD," Vernon said. "Those things are more dangerous than the police coming in to serve a search warrant."

She indicated that someone on the scene told police that "church butter" was used to make the food, and said police are having it tested to confirm that it does contain a narcotic. THC is tetrahydrocannabinol - the main psychoactive substance in marijuana.

"It is a shame that the county of Fayette is spending so much of the county's money trying to shut down this church, which represents a positive influence on the community," Koerner said, noting that none of the church's actual members nor anyone affiliated with it was among those arrested.

He also claimed that those arrested were for "petty charges like paraphernalia" and said that Vernon's contention that it was one of the biggest drug busts in the county's history was a "distortion" of the facts.

"They should be going after the real problems in the county like heroine, cocaine or methamphetamines," he said.

Vernon said she based her analysis of the bust being one of the biggest in the county's history on the number of people taken into custody on one fell swoop and the amount of paraphernalia and drugs like marijuana, LSD (acid) and psychedelic mushrooms seized.

"We've never seized as much drugs and paraphernalia as we did from that festival," Vernon said.

Koerner also alleged that police came up on the stage, harassing musicians and making racist comments to at least one, who is now considering filing a lawsuit.

"It was described to me as a Gestapo raid," Koerner said. "It's a sorry state of affairs in America when the government can do this to its citizens in the name of law enforcement."

Police did ask the band to stop playing, Vernon said, because authorities did not want them to use the speaker system to alert the rest of the people that law enforcement was on the grounds. The band complied, she said, and there were no racial remarks made.

"The raid was conducted in a fashion that was uneventful. There were no injuries, and the task force was outnumbered at least 20 to 1. They performed their job effectively, pursuant to a search warrant that permitted them to search all persons and all property (on church grounds)," she said.

Vernon said that there were about 36 officers on the scene, and between 400 and 500 people at the church. Officers left headquarters to go there around 5 p.m., and were there until about 8:30 p.m., she said.

Music church calls drug raid 'malicious'
August 04, 2009 02:11 AM TEXT SIZE By: Tom Liebmann
Bucks County Courier Times
PITTSBURGH (AP) - The attorney for a western Pennsylvania church that hosts "jam band" concerts says authorities engaged in "malicious prosecution" when they seized illegal drugs and drug-laced items in a weekend raid.

"The church's policy and our mission is to prevent illegal drugs," attorney Greg Koerner, who represents the Church of Universal Love and Music, said Monday. "This is a malicious prosecution, gross violation of the church's rights."

No one affiliated with the nondenominational Christian church was arrested or charged, including church leader William Pritts, Koerner said. Pritts could not be reached for comment Monday because his home telephone number is unlisted.

Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon said Saturday's raid was based on open drug use and sales her undercover agents saw at concerts on May 16 and July 4. Twenty-three people, including vendors and spectators, were arrested.

"The drug use and the vendors were so pervasive that it's not simply a case of someone coming in with drugs on them and nobody notices it," Vernon said. Four vendors were openly selling glass pipes, bongs and marijuana crushers, she said.

Pritts' church on a 147-acre tract about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh has drawn national attention, partly because of a segment on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in 2003.

In it, Pritts stated "God never said you can't party on" and criticized "bogarting" - the refusal to share a marijuana joint during the concerts, which his church characterizes as nondenominational services.

Koerner said the raid violates the "letter and spirit" of the March settlement of a federal religions freedom lawsuit Pritts filed in 2006, after the county refused to grant him a religious use exception for the shows.

Advertisement The county had previously said concerts weren't allowed on land zoned for agricultural use and echoed neighbors' concerns about noise, traffic and garbage.

Under the settlement, the county allowed Pritts to hold six Friday-Sunday concerts, and six more Saturday-only shows subject to noise, security, curfew and other restrictions.

Drugs were also explicitly banned.

"We certainly were going to try to keep them drug-free, but we don't have the right to search people as they come in," Koerner said, though Vernon said concert venues do that all the time. Koerner said Pritts and his hired security have ejected people seen using drugs openly.

But according to the search warrant, task force agents saw people at the May 16 and July 4 concerts openly using and selling drugs or drug-laced items, including "gonga treats" - which Vernon said were Rice Krispies treats laced with THC - and brownies or fudge made with marijuana-laced butter.

Agents confiscated more than 1,000 drug pipes or similar items, LSD and bags of hallucinogenic mushrooms, she said.

Vernon called "ridiculous" Koerner's claims on behalf of the church that agents threatened concertgoers and a band with guns, and that agents had "machine guns pointed at minors."

Vernon said the agents safeguarded children in the crowd of about 500 spectators, never carry "automatic weapons" or machine guns, and conducted the raid "without incident."

Koerner said he may ask a federal judge to consider whether the raid violated the March settlement. Marie Milie Jones, the attorney who represented the county in the lawsuit, said she is also trying to determine if the criminal charges mean Pritts violated the agreement.

Court closes controversial church
August 14, 2009 03:58 AM TEXT SIZE By: JENNIFER HARR
Herald Standard

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