Court reverses conviction on fleeing charge

The conviction of a Huntingdon County man for fleeing apprehension was reversed this week by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which determined state police troopers attempted to arrest the suspect before charges had been filed against him.

The alleged flight by suspect Jacob Lee Barnish, 26, of Huntingdon occurred on May 5, 2018.

Troopers went to Barnish’s residence to investigate an incident of domestic violence.

While questioning Barnish, Trooper Paul Brenneman received a transmission from another trooper at the state police barracks stating that arrest papers were being filled out, and he asked Brenneman and the other trooper at the home to place Barnish under arrest.

After receiving the information, Brenneman told Barnish he was under arrest and that he was to get down on the ground and place his hands behind his back.

Instead, Barnish ran, and the troopers had to apprehend him.

Barnish eventually went to trial on a charge of flight to avoid apprehension, and a jury found him guilty.

Huntingdon County Judge George N. Zanic sentenced him to confinement for a period of 10 to 23 months.

Attorney Christopher B. Wencker appealed the verdict and prison sentence to the Superior Court, posing the question whether the trial court should have entered a directed verdict of acquittal when the evidence demonstrated that Barnish had not been charged with a crime when he attempted to flee.

On Tuesday, a Superior Court panel that included Judges Victor P. Stabile, Maria McLaughlin and John L. Mussmano ruled Pennsylvania law requires that charges already had to be filed in order to charge the suspect with fleeing apprehension.

The prosecution argued that the troopers believed when they told Barnish he was under arrest that he had already been charged and added that Barnish knew he was under arrest.

But the testimony at trial indicated that the domestic violence charges had not yet been filed.

The charges against Barnish stemming from the alleged domestic violence incident included strangulation, applying pressure to the neck and throat, simple assault and harassment, but they were not filed against him until after he was brought to the state police barracks.

The Superior Court panel cited a 2015 decision in another case that stated the law against flight from apprehension “unambiguously” requires that the person fleeing was already facing charges.

The appeals court stated it was “beside the point” whether the troopers and Barnish “reasonably believed” charges were already filed.

The law requires at the time of flight the suspect has been charged with a crime, the Superior Court clarified.

“We therefore reverse Barnish’s judgment of sentence,” the panel ruled.

Court records show that Barnish, who was convicted of flight to avoid prosecution on Nov. 20, 2018, was released on parole on Aug. 5, 2019.

As for the domestic violence charges from May 5, 2018, the alleged strangulation and simple assault charges were dismissed, and Barnish, after a trial by judge, was sentenced on Dec. 16, 2019, to 90 days’ confinement for harassment.