Disbarred Bucks County lawyer Joseph P. Guarrasi could have expected stern treatment from the justice system after being convicted of plotting to murder a man so he could turn his house into a sex club. But having to pay for his rides to and from prison?
On Sept. 14, a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court allowed Guarrasi to clear a procedural hurdle in his case against Bucks County, its sheriff’s department and its clerk of courts, which he sued after being stuck with a $3,500 transportation bill incurred from 12 trips to and from his cell to the Bucks County courthouse furnished by the sheriff’s department from 2007 to 2015. During that period, Guarrasi was litigating, in forma pauperis, his Post-Conviction Relief Act claims.
The court overruled the defendants’ preliminary objections to Guarrasi’s claims that making him pay for the rides is unconstitutional.
Guarrasi argued that Section 9728(g) of the Sentencing Code, which authorizes government agencies to recoup some administrative costs, including for transportation, was not enacted until after he was sentenced. Therefore, Guarrasi contended, any attempt to collect transportation costs from him under Section 9728(g) was an improper attempt to apply the law retroactively, in violation of the ex post facto clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution, according to Judge Patricia McCullough, who penned the opinion.
McCullough, joined by Judge P. Kevin Brobson and Senior Judge James Gardner Colins, said Guarrasi set forth a plausible constitutional claim. The panel also rejected the defendants’ attempt to invoke governmental immunity, finding that immunity does not shield government entities from actions seeking injunctive relief.
Paul Lang, who represents the sheriff’s office, did not return a call seeking comment.
Guarrasi, who represents himself in the case, is incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Benner Township in Bellefonte. He pleaded guilty to several crimes in 2005 and was sentenced to six-and-a-half to 15 years in prison.
Guarrasi purchased a home in Doylestown with the intention of transforming it into a “‘Kama Sutra’ sex club,” court documents said. When he encountered problems with the real estate transaction and failed in his attempts to evict the resident of the house, Guarrasi solicited a man named Michael Samios to kidnap, assault and “‘make disappear’” the resident.
Samios, alarmed by the instructions, contacted authorities, according to court documents. He was wired by investigators from the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and recorded several conversations with Guarrasi.
Additionally, Guarrasi was charged for running a scheme to defraud insurers by staging auto accidents. As part of the scam, he attempted to elicit others to file fraudulent insurance claims.
After his conviction, Guarrasi argued his counsel was ineffective, claiming that despite having a severe mental illness and being unmedicated for days, he was allowed by his defense counsel to enter an involuntary and unknowing guilty plea. Guarrasi also claimed he had wanted to go to trial and was unaware of available defenses because his attorney failed to argue that the wire recordings should have been suppressed. On top of that, Guarrasi accused his attorney of “failing to undertake a reasonable investigation, unaware of law fundamental to the case, abandoning requested discovery and stipulating to false facts.”
Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Albert J. Cepparulo denied Guarrasi’s petition in a 112-page opinion issued Oct. 20, 2015.
The judge said Guarrasi’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims were meritless, noting that Guarrasi failed to present any evidence that he “was anything less than of clear mind” during his guilty plea. Cepparulo also said there was no basis to allege that the recordings of Guarrasi’s conversations with Samios were made in violation of the state Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.
The Superior Court unanimously upheld Cepparulo’s ruling in November 2016.
According to state records, Guarrasi was disbarred on consent in September 2005.