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Commonwealth v. Stenhach

Citation. Commonwealth v. Stenhach, 517 Pa. 589, 534 A.2d 769 (Pa. Nov. 5, 1987)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Public defenders came into possession of a rifle barrel which their client was alleged to have used during a murder and are now appealing various obstruction charges relating to their failure to relinquish it to the prosecution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Defendants and their counsel must relinquish all incriminating physical evidence to the prosecution before trial. Withholding such evidence constitutes an obstruction of justice.


Defendants George and Walter Stenhach, part-time public public defenders in Potter County, Pennsylvania, were appointed to represent Richard Buchanan, a murder suspect. They retained Daniel Weidner, a former police officer, to investigate the crime scene to retrieve various pieces of evidence identified by the defendant. Weidner recovered a broken rifle stock from a rifle matching the description of the one the client had provided, and returned it to the Defendants. Defendants considered the issue and determined that they were “obligated” to keep this evidence to protect their client. The stock was stored in a paper bag in Defendants’ office until its existence was revealed on the fourth day of trial. Defendants were charged with several counts of obstruction of justice, which they now appeal.


Must defense counsel provide the prosecution with incriminating physical evidence?

Was the statute under which the Defendants were convicted unconstitutionally vague or overbroad?


Yes. Incriminating physical evidence is not protected by any privilege, and defense counsel has a duty to deliver it to the prosecution immediately after a reasonable time for examination.

Yes. These statutes do not provide enough notice for what might constitute a crime in these kinds of circumstances. Effective criminal statutes must clearly proscribe certain types of behavior. Reversed, sentence vacated.


Although most jurisdictions have adopted a similar rule, this area of criminal law is still somewhat confusing.

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