Update (7/29/22): One of the organizations characterized by Allegheny County Deputy Sheriff Evan Townsend as “radical” in opposition to police tactics and incarceration responded this week. Take Action Mon Valley issued a statement on its Facebook page, saying that the deputy’s “unwillingness to work with the community or form relationships that will positively impact Black lives is alarming but not shocking.” The organization called for a review of his past arrests. In response to PublicSource’s request for a response, Sheriff Kevin Kraus wrote that his office concluded an investigation of Townsend’s communication, “and disciplinary action was taken.” Kraus did not detail the discipline.

Reported 6/30/22: After a disagreement with Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas over the timing of a warrant approval, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office announced in February that it was investigating him for unspecified “additional issues.” 

Within days, some local law enforcement professionals unhappy with the reform-minded Pappas — a critic of cash bail and racial disparities in the justice system — lobbied the DA and courts for action against him, according to internal emails obtained by PublicSource via a Right-To-Know request.

Pappas was characterized as “biased” and “guilty” in one email from a deputy sheriff, while a police chiefs group expressed “support” for investigation of the judge, whose district comprises neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s East End.

Mik Pappas, a magisterial district judge, at his court in Highland Park. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)
Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas was characterized as “biased” and “guilty” in one email from a deputy sheriff. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

It’s the courts, not police or the DA, that are responsible under the Pennsylvania Constitution for investigating judicial conduct. Police efforts to undermine Pappas raise concerns for some legal observers about separation of powers, and the extent to which law enforcement resources have been marshaled based on political disagreement.

“This has always been about my interpretation of the law and my viewpoints regarding the criminal legal system and my support for reform,” Pappas, of Highland Park, told PublicSource. “One of the greatest dangers in the criminal legal system is the use of criminal process to go after, so to speak, people you disagree with in terms of politics.”

Presented by PublicSource with emails showing a deputy sheriff in his office had been surveilling Pappas’ social media accounts, Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus launched an internal investigation. Kraus later revealed that the deputy in question had been placed on leave and would face disciplinary proceedings after the investigation determined he had “committed policy violations.”

Saving the posts

Law enforcement opposition to Pappas emerged following a dispute between the judge and District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. The prosecutor alleged that the judge ignored a warrant waiting for his signature in a high-profile case involving the murder of an Uber driver. Pappas denied the claim, saying that the warrant never reached his desk and that he would have promptly signed it otherwise.

In a February email composed a few days after the DA’s announcement of an inquiry into Pappas, Deputy Sheriff Evan Townsend wrote to prosecutors in Zappala’s office detailing his concerns about the magistrate and revealing that he had been monitoring and saving screenshots from Pappas’ social media accounts.

“I … have saved all the posts and followed his activity for some time now,” Townsend wrote. Copied on the email was Leo O’Neill, commander of the sheriff’s office courts division. 

Townsend complained at length about the judicial philosophy of Pappas — elected to his seat in 2017 on a platform calling for an end to mass incarceration — deeming him “the arm of these new and dangerous progressive movements.”

Email dated Feb. 27 from Allegheny County Deputy Sheriff Evan Townsend to Deputy District Attorney Melissa Hong-Barco, Assistant District Attorney Grant Olson and Sheriff’s Office Commander Leo O’Neill.

Townsend did not respond to a request for comment.

Kraus characterized Townsend as acting outside official channels, saying there was “no investigation regarding a District Judge authorized by the Sheriff’s office.” Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Zappala “has no desire to be involved in any political debate concerning such posts and our office has neither initiated nor participated in any review or investigation of social media posts.”

Townsend highlighted a Facebook friend of Pappas who volunteered on his 2017 campaign for magistrate and was later charged with arson in 2019 following an incident during protests over the shooting of Antwon Rose II. (Online court dockets indicate that none of her cases went before Pappas.) The friend did not respond to a request for comment.

Townsend attached more than a dozen screenshots from the friend’s Facebook profile to the email for the DA’s office, a few of which expressed support for violence against police officers. No posts from Pappas’ own online profiles appeared in Townsend’s screenshots, according to the Right-To-Know response from the DA’s office, except for a retweet of a local news story on his conflicts with Zappala.

Deputy District Attorney Melissa Hong-Barco responded to Townsend by inquiring as to whether he’d contacted the state’s judicial ethics board. Townsend said he had not, adding, “Whatever you think or however I can help, let me know.” 

“Sounds good,” Hong-Barco responded. “I am looking through everything now.”

Pappas called the tone of Townsend’s email “extreme” and “fanatical,” faulting the DA’s staffers for not pushing back against it. 

“There should be no reason for the district attorney’s office to engage with it … or enable it by claiming to be investigating it in some way, as though that would be something in their purview,” he said.

Backlash not only in Pittsburgh

The dispute has surfaced amid clashes across the country between a new wave of progressive jurists and prosecutors and those with a more traditional, “law-and-order” approach to criminal justice.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former civil rights lawyer and critic of his predecessors, has faced fierce opposition from the local police union and former prosecutors as well as an impeachment effort by Republican state representatives. In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled in June after what local media called “a war” with the city’s police department. Elsewhere, police unions have been major donors in judicial elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, funding ads branding candidates “soft” on crime and criticizing them for past rulings.

Locally, progressives are making unprecedented inroads in the region’s justice system and have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Zappala. Coming off a string of recent victories, activist groups including the Alliance for Police Accountability and UNITE, founded by rising left-wing star and Democratic congressional nominee Summer Lee, are already eying a challenge to the longtime district attorney in next year’s election. 

Pappas ran last year for the Court of Common Pleas as part of the UNITE-backed “Slate of Eight” candidates committed to criminal justice reform. While he was unsuccessful, five of the eight candidates did win seats, along with a handful of progressive magistrate candidates. 

Chiefs group and prosecutor weighed in

The same week that Townsend reached out to the DA’s office, a lawyer for the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association drafted a letter to the president judge for the county’s Court of Common Pleas, supporting an investigation of complaints regarding Pappas and offering the group’s assistance. The lawyer, Michael Colarusso, circulated the draft among the association’s members via email and was thanked in response by Tim Logue, deputy chief of the detective bureau in the DA’s office, and Etna Police Chief Timothy Rodman.

Excerpt from email dated March 1 from attorney Michael J. Colarusso to members of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.
Draft letter to President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark from the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.

It’s unclear whether the draft letter to President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark was sent, received or acted upon. Courts spokesman Joseph Asturi declined to comment; Colarusso did not respond to requests for comment.

Sam Wiseman, a law professor at Penn State, said it is appropriate for police and prosecutors with a good-faith basis for believing a judge is acting unprofessionally to lobby court administrators.

“If the police reasonably think that the judge is not issuing warrants that should be issued or whatever else, who else is going to complain about it?” Wiseman said. 

If, on the other hand, law enforcement officials are conducting their own investigations based purely on political disagreement, he added, “that’s obviously deeply troubling for a democratic society.”

Pappas declined to comment on his subsequent discussions of the matter with court administrators. 

The magistrate has similarly run afoul of rank-and-file prosecutors. In an email dated April 9, 2021, Deputy District Attorney Stephie Ramaley wrote to a group of colleagues complaining that Pappas had rejected warrants her office sought to search cellphones in several criminal cases, calling his decisions “a recurring problem that the clerks at city court are also acknowledging.” The warrants were later resubmitted to other judges, gaining approval, she added.

Pappas told PublicSource that he had approved 70% of the search warrants submitted to him in 2021, including a number involving phones.

“More than anything, this correspondence reveals views and practices that should be deeply concerning to the general public,” he said. Among those, he said, are “the presumption that judges should simply sign rather than review search warrant applications” and “the total lack of oversight or formal judicial review that allows a detective to shop a warrant application around until they find an approving judge, again, without any readily available public record of this occurring.”

Tierra Bradford, a criminal justice policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said she worried the pressure and scrutiny on Pappas could dissuade “the types of people the community may want to see in office, and that is a huge problem.”

“It sends a really bad message to people who want to come in and make change in the community,” she said.

J.T. O’Toole is a software developer and writer. He can be reached at calm.desk3730@fastmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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