by Geoff Rushton
A Centre County judge has denied Beta Theta Pi’s motion to compel the return of surveillance video and equipment taken by police as part of the investigation into Timothy Piazza’s death.
Judge Thomas Kistler ruled on Monday that when the Alpha Upsilon chapter filed a civil motion in March asking for the video to be returned, it had not been charged with any crimes. But the chapter and former members were charged with a variety of crimes in May, and it later became known that State College police had obtained search warrants for the video equipment.
“The Court finds these two facts remove this matter from this Court’s jurisdiction,” Kistler wrote. “Plaintiff’s status as a criminal defendant adds criminal discovery implications to this action. As Plaintiff is no longer a third-party to the investigation, but rather the subject of the criminal investigation, the Court finds a motion in criminal court would be the proper way to resolve this issue.”
Kistler added that since the equipment is now held by a search warrant, not consent, a ruling by a civil court could interfere with pending criminal action.
Piazza died on Feb. 4 from non-recoverable brain injuries and massive internal bleeding caused by falls throughout the night of Feb. 2 and morning of Feb. 3 during an alcohol-fueled pledge initiation event at the fraternity house on North Burrowes Street.
On Feb. 6, police received permission from fraternity president Brendan Young to download the contents of the video recorders, but found the files were so large it would have taken days to download a few hours of footage. The fraternity’s live-in adviser, Tim Bream, then gave investigators permission to take the surveillance video equipment from inside the house and return it when they were finished.
Alpha Upsilon chapter attorney Leahey argued at a hearing in August that meant the two digital recorder boxes would be returned when the relevant footage was downloaded. Police and Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller have said it meant when the investigation was completed.
Leahey also argued that the video was the chapter’s property and that the Commonwealth had not established it as contraband. Parks Miller countered that the search warrants alone allowed police to keep it and that rules of discovery in criminal cases don’t entitle the defense to have the full video footage contained on the recorders returned before the case is finished
The fraternity chapter and the DA’s office have gone back and forth for months, with Kistler initially ordering for the equipment to be returned, then on appeal reversing that and subsequently ordering both sides to agree on a method to duplicate the full contents of the equipment.
In early August, a second search warrant was obtained after police discovered evidence that some footage may have been deleted the same day police took the equipment. Investigators previously had been told that video cameras in the basement – where Piazza suffered at least one major fall and where drinking took place throughout the night – were not working.
The equipment was then sent to the FBI for forensic analysis and to attempt to retrieve any video that may have been deleted.
The video had already been key evidence in a grand jury investigation that led to charges in Piazza’s death.
After a preliminary hearing this summer in the criminal cases against the chapter and 18 former members, a number of charges were dismissed, including the most serious charges of aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter faced by some defendants.
The Alpha Upsilon chapter still faces charges of hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors, and 14 former members face a variety of charges including those, as well as reckless endangerment and tampering with evidence.
Parks Miller said after the hearing that she expected the FBI analysis of the video would lead to the filing of additional charges. She also said she expects to refile some of the dismissed charges.