New judge nearly sets precedent for PFAs

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County Judge Wade Kagarise almost set a precedent Thursday when he asked a 24-year-old defendant if he wanted a presentence investigation before being sentenced for violating a protection-from-abuse order

Steven R. Berkheimer of New Enterprise, who had just been found guilty of sending his estranged wife four text messages – contact prohibited under the PFA law, replied that he wanted a presentence report done.

Kargarise explained to him that such a report would provide the judge with more information about his background, his family history and his employment history so he would better know the defendant before imposing sentence.

While it is mandatory for judges to order presentencing reports in cases where long prison sentences are possible, such an investigation previously had never been requested in a PFA case, according to Blair County Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul.

She objected to the presentence order.

Not only has it never been done before, she said, but the whole purpose of the PFA procedure is to provide protection to someone in fear of violence and to “quickly” stop whatever problem exists.

A presentence investigation report takes 60 to 90 days, meaning that if such reports were ordered in PFA cases, the protection would be in limbo for many weeks.

Berkheimer’s attorney, Ed Ferguson, said he knew of no authorization for a presentence report in a PFA case.

Kagarise called a recess so he could look up the law on presentence investigations and asked Ferguson and Paul to also research the law.

After a short break, the trio met in Kagarise’s office.

Later, Kagarise explained to Berkhemier that a presentence investigation was not needed in the case, and he denied the defendant’s request.

Kagarise then sentenced Berkheimer to $750 in fines for two offenses charged as one count and two others charged separately.

Paul wanted 18 months’ probation in the case, but Kagarise said Berkheimer had no prior PFA violations and no history of violence.

Ferguson asked the judge to impose a fine only because Berkheimer is in the National Guard and such a sentence could interfere with his job.

Kagarise, a former deputy district attorney, has only been on the bench for a month and is in his second week of hearing cases.

Most of the cases assigned to him so far have involved custody and family-related issues. He is working on two opinions involving custody.

On Thursday, Kagarise presided over the county’s PFA Court contempt hearings.

A protection-from-abuse case is a civil matter, but if the defendant contacts the person who requested the order, it becomes a criminal contempt issue.

Berkheimer’s estranged wife said he sent her four texts after a PFA order was signed by President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva in early January.

He denied he sent the texts, and his attorney presented evidence that, he said, showed the wife was trying to get the upper hand in an upcoming custody battle.

The wife presented her phone to the judge so he could review the messages.

Paul argued the defense was trying to say the wife “did this [send messages] to herself.” She said there was no evidence to support that charge. She asked the judge to look at the content of the messages, which involved private family matters.

Kagarise said he believed the wife’s story that she had received messages from her husband.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.