What is a Meth Lab?

The RVA recent article in the local fishwrap raised alarms around our community. “State College man arrested, charged with running meth lab in Park Forest house,” screamed the headline! Over the past several days, a number of people have asked me about this so-called meth lab. For some reason, they all think I know a little something about drugs, which I do. As a criminal defense attorney who regularly defends drug users, dealers, and manufacturers, I have a professional responsibility to understand how this whole business works.

Around here – here being Centre county – meth has not been a major problem. We are more of a marijuana and cocaine town, with heroin making recent inroads via Philadelphia and New York City. So when the media starts talking about a meth lab in a house in one of our nicer residential neighborhoods, the community goes into a minor tizzy.

So what did he have?

From what I can glean from media reports, he was using a two-liter soda bottle in a one-pot method often referred to as “shake and bake.” The idea is to make a small amount of methamphetamine from cold medicine and a couple of pretty nasty household chemicals and other items (you can go elsewhere for the ingredients and step-by-step instructions; I’m not in the business of educating budding drug manufacturers) that anyone with a decent background in chemistry can figure out how to mix. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a Walter White to figure out how to make meth. Case in point: Meth heads can do it.)

The police don’t help matters much. Their term for this device is “mobile meth lab.” To me, with my education, knowledge, and experience, that name connotes a full chemistry rig in the back of a van (or perhaps in a motor home?), not one of these self-serve batches.

Collateral Consequences – for the Homeowner!

Here’s the part no one has mentioned yet: the owners of the residence, who seem to have reported the lab themselves, are in for a surprise when and if they ever try to sell their house. They are now obligated to disclose that a “meth lab” was operated on the premises. Arguably this was not a meth lab per se, but any buyer who searches the internet for this address will eventually find one of the inflammatory articles written about this case and that, at the very least, will delay their closing on the sale.

They’ve also just nudged down property values in their neighborhood.

No one wins here

The homeowners look clueless. The cops look over-zealous. The newspaper looks yellow. And the guy with the “mobile meth lab” is looking at some serious charges. Specifically, he has been charged with possession of precursor chemicals (Ungraded Felony; up to seven years of incarceration and a fine of up to $15,000), possession of drug paraphernalia (Ungraded Misdemeanor; up to one year of incarceration and a fine of up to $2,500), and illegal dumping of methamphetamine waste (Felony 3; up to seven years of incarceration and a fine of up to $15,000).

Young Person’s Guide: Part One – Initial Charges

Initial Charges via Police Criminal Complaint

If you are accused of a crime, you will most likely receive a Police Criminal Complaint in the mail. These are typically sent via both first class and certified USPS mail. Included in the envelope will be a copy of the Police Criminal Complaint, a Summons to appear for a Preliminary Hearing in Central Court, and a Fingerprint Order.

The Police Criminal Complaint outlines the Commonwealth’s case against you. It lists what specific statutes or laws you are alleged to have violated, identifying information about you, witnesses, and the officers involved, and a succinct description of the officer’s version of events called the “Affidavit of Probable Cause.”

You must have your fingerprints scanned and photograph taken prior to your Preliminary Hearing date. You do this at the Centre County Central Booking Center, located on the right side of the Centre County Correctional Facility’s building at 700 Rishel Hill Road, Bellefonte, PA 16823. If you do not have your fingerprints and photograph taken prior to your Preliminary Hearing, the judge may refuse to set bail in your case until you do so, which can create a hassle for you, your attorney, and the entire court.

Initial Charges via Arraignment

If your offenses are more serious, you may be arrested and taken before a Magisterial District Judge, who will inform you of the charges against you, give you a copy of the Police Criminal Complaint, and set bail in your case. Chances are that you’ll be incarcerated when you “see the judge,” and your arraignment will be via videoconference. If you cannot afford to post bail, you will be taken to (or remain in) the Centre County Correctional Facility.

The Best of Both Worlds

One hybrid situation is an arrest for Driving Under the Influence (DUI). In these cases, the accused is placed under arrest and transported to the nearest medical center that conducts blood tests (Mount Nittany Medical Center or Tyrone Hospital; the Central Booking Center on busy weekends; and a mobile lab during a DUI Checkpoint operation). At the hospital, the accused – if he or she has been calm and nonthreatening during the encounter – will not be re-handcuffed and will be taken to the Central Booking Center to be “processed” (fingerprints and photograph). At this point, most people are released to a family member, allowed to call a cab, or if the officer is in a good mood or it is on his or her way, dropped off at home.

PROTIP: Don’t go back to get your car that night. You are not sober. Get it the next day. Preferably after breakfast. Even if you think you are fine to drive because it is 4am and you were arrested at midnight and you “only had a few,” don’t do it. You will be arrested again, and will have to go through the whole rigmarole of a blood draw and a trip to the booking center. Furthermore, don’t ask the cabbie to drop you at your car. He’ll do it, and then call the cops. Don’t laugh. This happens. I’ve represented several over the years.

Before you are Charged

You do not have to wait until you receive the Complaint in the mail to talk to a lawyer. If you are applying for a Public Defender, they cannot talk to you until you do receive the Complaint, but private attorneys have no such restrictions. A lawyer can often reach out to the investigating officers and possibly mitigate the charges before they are filed, particularly if you have information or other assistance to offer in exchange. Additionally, if you are facing a charge that will likely lead to an Arraignment, a lawyer can try to negotiate a self-surrender in which you drive yourself to the Magisterial District Judge’s office instead of being arrested and transported in the back of a police car.

The Young Person’s Guide to Centre County Criminal Court

Today I’m sharing the first entry in a new web series. Taking my inspiration not so much from the classic Benjamin Britten orchestral work and more from the one I actually heard first, Garrison Keilor’s parody, I offer: The Young Person’s Guide to Centre County Criminal Court. Each entry will explain the rules, procedures, and quirks of a typical criminal case in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas from the initial charge through trial, appeal, and post-conviction relief.

Part One – Initial Charges

Part Two through ? – Coming Soon!

I think these pieces will be generally useful as an overview of the Criminal Justice System for anyone in Pennsylvania, but my focus is on Centre County in particular. I am aiming at a lay audience, but I hope my fellow practitioners will find it helpful as well. In particularly the younger, less experienced attorneys. I also hope the more… let’s call them “seasoned” attorneys will chime in with suggestions and corrections.

Throughout this series, in addition to the nuts and bolts of shepherding* a case through The System, I’ll also be offering insight into the types of cases likely to come up in Centre County.

I believe, as Thomas Jefferson did, that an informed citizenry are the bulwark of a strong democracy, and indeed are the only defense against tyranny that has ever worked. For many, the Criminal Justice System is at best a black box. Understanding how it works might help you avoid involvement in it in the first place, or at least make your experience less confusing.

As always, usual disclaimers apply. None of this is to be taken as legal advice. You should contact an attorney for advice on your individual situation. Know your rights.


*Lawyer joke; pun intended.