State court upholds Piner prosecution

PITTSBURGH – The Pennsylvania Superior Court, after 13 months of deliberation, has upheld the prosecution of an Altoona man for his alleged involvement in the Operation Last Call cocaine ring that was broken up by police in 2011.

Many of the leaders of the drug organization have either entered guilty pleas or been tried and convicted.

But Altoona resident Stephen M. Piner, 54, continues to fight the charges against him, claiming the prosecutions should be dismissed, and that in lieu of that, he should be freed on $1 bail pending the outcome of his case because he has been denied a speedy trial.

A three-member panel from the Pennsylvania Superior Court that included Judges Jack A. Panella, John L. Musmanno and Judith Ference on Tuesday denied both claims by Altoona defense attorneys Thomas M. Dickey and David J. Kaltenbaugh.

Piner was charged with a series of drug offenses filed Nov. 1, 2011, and Feb. 28, 2012.

The charges have been consolidated for trial.

The defense has been arguing for more than a year that the charges should be dismissed because Piner was arrested Aug. 19, 2009, after, he claims, investigators conducted two “trash pulls” from his residence.

They took place on Aug. 11, 2009, and Aug. 18, 2009.

He was charged with three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, relatively minor offenses when compared to the charges he faces now: 14 cases related to drug delivery from April 9, 2010, through Aug. 15, 2011, and additional drug offenses from Sept. 15, 2011, through Nov. 4, 2011.

The defense contends that the prosecution knew about his involvement in drugs from the 2009 charges.

Piner claimed subsequent charges were investigated by the same officers using the same informants.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle reviewed the case and ruled the new charges were not part of the “same criminal episode” for which he was originally arrested, and therefore did not constitute double jeopardy.

She reasoned the 2009 charges were investigated and prosecuted by a county detective while the newer charges stemmed from an investigation conducted by the West Drug Task Force and Altoona Police Department.

Wiretaps also were used in the latter investigation.

She dismissed the alleged double jeopardy argument originally presented by the late attorney Ed Blanarik of Centre County.

Doyle said the Superior Court Panel “addressed this claim and concluded it lacks merit. … We agree with the sound reasoning of the trial court [Doyle].”

The judges also reviewed the case to determine if Piner has been denied a speedy trial and concluded that many of the delays in the case were the result of the defense and not the prosecution and that Piner, to this point, has not been denied his right to a speedy trial.

Piner remains in the Blair County Prison under $750,000 bail.

Police maintain he was a large distributor of cocaine that was being brought to Altoona from Baltimore and doled out to dealers through the former Corner Bar.

The defense has 30 days to request a rehearing of the case in front of a larger panel of judges.

If the defense does not seek a rehearing, the case will be sent back to Blair County for trial.

Dickey said Tuesday afternoon he will ask for a rehearing and indicated he would request a Supreme Court review of the case if the larger panel upholds Judge Doyle’s opinion.

The leader of the cocaine distribution ring, Damion “Benny” Floyd of Baltimore, was sentenced this month to 23 to 60 years behind bars.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.