CLEARFIELD – A hearing was held on Friday for a state trooper accused of obstructing justice in a DUI case.
Ryan Henschel, 32 of Phililpsburg, faces charges of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, tampering with public records or information, obstructing administration of law or other governmental functions and hindering apprehension or prosecution. All charges are misdemeanors.
According to testimony on March 20 Henschel responded the scene of an accident involving an off-duty state trooper, Christopher Pifer.
Cpl. Svin Donaldson, formerly of the Clearfield Barracks and now with the Megan’s Law unit in Harrisburg, served as a patrol unit supervisor. Donaldson was also in charge of the fleet and vehicle maintenance. As a custodial officer he was responsible for obtaining and downloading information from each vehicle’s mobile vehicle recorder.
He testified that he became aware of the Pifer situation when they were alerted that he was stuck in a ditch. He said about 10-15 minutes later Henschel’s call came in to the barracks on a private cell phone. He said Henschel told him that it was worse than they thought. Donaldson said he told Henschel he was coming out and not to move Pifer’s vehicle. He testified that he felt he needed to go out because he was the shift supervisor.
He continued, saying it took about 15-20 minutes to get to the scene. He said he talked to Henshel about the accident when he arrived on scene. Donaldson went about conducting a crash investigation at that point. He said that Henschel never came out and said that Pifer was drunk or driving. He said they were talking in the fashion like, “he wasn’t that bad.” Donaldson said he took it that Pifer wasn’t drunk or over the legal limit.
“I knew what he was talking about,” said Donaldson.
He testified that he talked with Pifer briefly and later conducted an interview. He said he could tell Pifer was under the influence of alcohol due to staggering and the odor of alcohol. Donaldson then requested a field sobriety test once the scene was safe. Donaldson set up a driveway, which was level and flat, as the spot for the field sobriety test. He backed his vehicle up and positioned MVR in a position to capture the test. He stated that he had Henschel join him, saying that two sets of eyes were better than one.
Before he was able to conduct the test, Donaldson said he went to help the two truck drivers with Pifer’s vehicle. He said it took about three, maybe five minutes. He testified that Henschel told him he (Henschel) performed a field sobriety test on Pifer, and that he passed. He testified that he told Henschel the case was his.
Donaldson had Pifer do two tests, both of which he said Pifer failed. He was asked by Clearfield County District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. if he was aware his vehicle camera was not on. He said a lot was going on and that he did not notice that the LED light was not on.
“I wish I did,” said Donaldson.
He also had Pifer take a portable breathalyzer test, which tested positive for alcohol.
Donaldson was asked by Shaw if Henschel made any statements. He responded that both Henschel and Pifer disputed the fail.
He testified that he placed Pifer under arrest and that when he entered his patrol car, he noticed his recorder was off. He said he asked Henschel if he turned it off, and that Henschel told him no. Donaldson said he called into the barracks to log a malfunction with his camera. He said he took then took Pifer to Clearfield Hospital for a blood draw.
Donaldson also testified that he received two messages from Henschel asking Donaldson to contact him. He said that he eventually spoke with Henschel, though he could not remember who called who. Donaldson said he was wanted to make sure that a gun Pifer had was secure, which was put in Henschel’s custody during the investigation at the scene.
He said he told Henschel about calling in the MVR malfunction, and that at that time, Henschel admitted to shutting off the camera. He said that Henschel said he thought Donaldson meant his (Henschel’s) vehicle’s camera when initially asked. He said that Henschel told him he did as he was taught, and shut it off.
This topic became something of a sticking point between the prosecution and the defense. Donaldson was asked if he trained troopers to turn off their MVRs. He indicated that he did, but only under certain circumstances, such as one that would not be of any evidentiary value. Under cross-examination by Henschel’s attorney Randall Ricciuti, Donaldson indicated that the MVR recording was essentially another tool used in cases. He said that the field regulations controlled when the MVR was to be used. He also testified that troopers are not trained to turn off other trooper’s MVRs, nor their supervisor’s MVRs.
“This was a supervisor’s worst nightmare,” Donaldson said about the MVR being off.
He was asked by Ricciuti if Henschel had tried to thwart his attempts during the investigation. Donaldson indicated that Henschel had helped him get the paperwork for the blood draw at Clearfield Hospital.
Under re-direct, Shaw also asked if Henschel did anything to help thwart the case. Donaldson said he shut off the MVR.
As part of the commonwealth’s case, those in attendance watched Donaldson’s MVR recording up until the point it went dark. Among items that could be seen, one was Donaldson moving the car back and adjusting his MVR to get a good view of the field sobriety test testing area. Donaldson and Henschel could be heard interacting with each other and Pifer. At one point, shortly before the camera is shut off, Henschel and Pifer were left alone in front of Donaldson’s car while the corporal went to help the tow truck driver. No exchange could be heard between the two.
Under cross Donaldson said Pifer was chewing gum. One of the issues in the criminal complaint was that Henschel took Pifer to a nearby convenience store after the crash but before Donaldson arrived. While there Pifer purchased gum and breath mints. Pifer testified on Friday that he was unsure if Henschel knew what Pifer was going to get at the convenience store.
Pifer was charged with DUI and is awaiting the outcome of his case.
In closing arguments, Ricciuti argued the unimportance of the video evidence due to Pifer’s “staggering drunk” level of intoxication.
“I don’t think this video evidence is that significant.”
He also stated that Henschel admitted to turning off the camera, and that there was confusion as to which camera Henschel understood Donaldson was referring too.
“I think beyond a reasonable doubt there was confusion.”
Ricciuti likened the case against Henschel to a witch hunt, and said the issue was really a disciplinary matter within the state police.
“He admitted he turned it (the camera) off,” said Ricciuti. “It was a mistake.”
He asked that the judge dismiss all charges so Henschel could get back to work to support his family.
In his closing, Shaw said that Donaldson had every intention of recording the field sobriety test, and noted that the corporal adjusted the camera to get a better view of the testing area. He also argued a point that the defense brought up on different occassions in their questioning regarding a “two-hour rule”, in which the police have two hours to get a suspect to the hospital for a blood draw. In this case, Pifer was taken for the blood draw about three hours after his accident.
Shaw asked the judge to suppose that Pifer used the two-hour rule to fight his DUI. Shaw said the commonwealth still has another subsection of DUI it can charge him with, “incapable of safe driving.” Shaw said in that instance, the camera footage would have been the best evidence.
Shaw argued that Henschel was argumentative with Donaldson at the scene over the results of the field sobriety tests and PBT. Shaw pointed out that Donaldson was performing an unpleasant, unpopular task.
Shaw asked the judge to return all charges to court and leave it to a jury to decide the case.
Centre County Magisterial District Judge Thomas Jordan bound all charges over, stating that he believed the commonwealth met their burden at this level.