Court nixes home detention

Corner Bar owner may have to complete jail term in drug case

Altoona businessman Brian Stroh, 43, might have to return to the Blair County Prison to complete a jail term for drug offenses rather than serve home detention after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

The state’s highest court late last week refused to hear an appeal filed by Stroh’s Altoona attorney, Steven P. Passarello, challenging an August Superior Court ruling, which found Blair Judge Timothy M. Sullivan had erred by changing Stroh’s sentence from incarceration to home detention — after Stroh had served 15 months of a 22.5-month minimum sentence.

Deputy Attorneys General Dave Gorman and Christopher J. Schmidt appealed Sullivan’s order, contending Stroh’s incarceration was part of a plea agreement between the prosecution and defense and that Sullivan’s jurisdiction in the case had long expired.

A Superior Court panel of Judges Mary Jane Bowes, Anne E. Lazarus and Paula Francisco Ott pointed out that a county judge has 30 days to alter a sentence.

Stroh entered a plea agreement on July 15, 2015, and was sentenced to 2.5 years minus one day to five years minus two days on charges of possession with intent to deliver and criminal use of a communication device.

Sullivan found Stroh was eligible for the state’s Risk Recidivism Reduction Initiative, which offers a reduced minimum sentence to inmates who participate in various programs.

Under RRRI, Stroh’s minimum was to be 22.5 months.

It wasn’t until Sept. 19, 2016, that Stroh’s attorney requested house arrest, which was approved by the judge on Nov. 9, 2016, more than 15 months after the original sentence.

The Superior Court panel pointed out that a trial judge can modify a sentence beyond the 30-day period to clarify a clerical error or a technical mistake.

With respect to the Stroh case, it ruled: “There is no patent or obvious error in the court’s original sentencing order that the trial court was empowered to correct.

“Accordingly, because the trial court did not have jurisdiction to modify defendant’s sentence and place him on house arrest/electronic monitoring, the court’s Nov. 9, 2016, order is a nullity.”

The panel also went on to explain that according to a 2005 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling home detention — in the comfort of one’s home — is not a substitute for a sentence that calls for incarceration.

The Superior Court recognized that Stroh personally paid $5,100 to participate in the home monitoring program but concluded he will “presumably lose that money due to the court’s lack of jurisdiction to grant him the right to be placed on home monitoring.”

It noted Stroh was the “least culpable party” in the controversy over the sentence.

The Supreme Court’s decision last week to deny further hearing in the Stroh case upholds the ruling by the Superior Court, and, according to prosecutor Schmidt, brings the case close to an end.

Passarello, in a similar case, recently filed a federal petition for further review, and Schmidt noted that was a possibility, but if avenues of further appeal are exhausted and the current decision stands, “he should return to prison.”

The defense attorney in August said he had a valid argument to present to the Supreme Court based on exception to the 30-day rule that the Superior Court did not address — one of equity or fairness.

Stroh was the owner of the Corner Bar in Altoona in 2011 when the West Drug Task Force officers broke up a cocaine ring led by Damion “Benny” Floyd of Baltimore, which had been operating from the bar.

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