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Commonwealth v. Stenhach

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The Stenhachs (Defendant) were charged with hindering prosecution and tampering evidence when they retained possession of a broken rifle stock from a rifle used by their client, who was being tried for murder, following the trial court’s insistence that they produce the rifle stock.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Attorney-client privilege does not apply when physical evidence of a crime is in the possession of a criminal defense attorney, as it must be delivered to the prosecution.

    Facts.

    Attorneys George Stenhach (Defendant) and Walter Stenhach (Defendant) were defending Buchanan on a murder charge and hired an investigator, Weidner, who found the broken rife stock from the rifle Buchanan used.  The Defendants stored the rifle stock in a desk drawer in their office.  When the trial court became aware of the rifle stock, the Defendants were ordered to produce it.  Following Buchanan’s conviction, the Defendants were charged, under state statute, with hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence.  They argued unsuccessfully at their trial that the attorney-client privilege obligated them to retain the rifle stock in order to protect their client.  After their conviction and sentencing, the Defendants appealed, challenging the trial court’s interpretation of the statutes and arguing that the statutes were unconstitutionally vague or overbroad as applied to defense attorneys

    Issue.

    Does attorney-client privilege apply when physical evidence of crime is in the possession of a criminal defense attorney?

    Held.

    (Hester, J.)  No.  Attorney-client privilege does not apply when physical evidence of crime is in the possession of a criminal defense attorney, as it must be delivered to the prosecution.  After a reasonable time for examination, a criminal defense attorney in possession of physical evidence that is incriminating to his client may return it to its source if he is able to do so without hindering the prosecution of another and without altering, destroying, or concealing it or impairing its factuality.  Otherwise, he is required to deliver it to the prosecution on his own motion.  However, the statutes against hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence are unconstitutionally vague or overbroad as applied to attorneys engaged in the representation of criminal defendants, and so their enforcement against the Defendants was a denial of due process.  Accordingly, the appellants are ordered discharged

    Discussion.

    A lawyer is prohibited by Model Rule 3.4(a) from “unlawfully†obstructing another party’s access to evidence or “unlawfully†altering, destroying, or concealing a document or other material having potential evidentiary value.  Statutory definitions of “unlawful†conduct concerning destruction of evidence vary from state to state.  Although a version of Model Rule 3.4(a) was adopted by Pennsylvania after Stenhach was decided, the Stenhachs (Defendants) were not disciplined by the Disciplinary Counsel, which cited as mitigating circumstances the prior case law in their favor, inaction by the prosecution (Plaintiff), and Buchanan’s conviction.


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