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Long Island judge says text messages admissible in fatal crash trial

Joseph Beer, 19, of Queens, is escorted into a courtroom at the Nassau County Court during his vehicular homicide trial.
Joseph Beer, 19, of Queens, is escorted into a courtroom at the Nassau County Court during his vehicular homicide trial.
Photo Credit: Mike Balsamo

A Nassau County judge ruled Wednesday that text messages found on a Queens teenager’s cellphone will be allowed as evidence at his vehicular homicide trial after following an evidentiary hearing that was opened when a state trooper changed his testimony about where he found the phone at the crash site.

Joseph Beer’s defense lawyer had been trying to suppress evidence from the phone after he alleged police illegally seized the device from the scene of a fatal crash Beer was involved in along the Southern State Parkway in October 2012. Beer’s defense lawyer, Todd Greenberg, argued the phone was illegally seized and said his client has previously told the court, through depositions, that he believes emergency personnel took his phone from him after the crash. Prosecutors were seeking to admit old text messages from the phone that discussed smoking marijuana and speeding on prior occasions in an attempt to show Beer was intentionally reckless, Greenberg has said.

In his decision Wednesday, Nassau County Court Judge David Sullivan said New York State Trooper Eduardo Arias “testified before this Court that he was mistaken in his previous hearing testimony with respect to where he found the defendant’s phone.” Arias had testified at a hearing last June that he found four cell phones and an iPod touch on the ground outside of the mangled car along the shoulder of the Southern State Parkway in Malverne. On the stand Monday, he said one of the phones, a black Samsung, had been found on the driver’s seat of what remained of Beer’s 2012 Subaru Impreza after the crash. The judge said he “believes the testimony of the Trooper” and said the seizure of the phone was “reasonable” because it was “in plain view in the wreckage.”

In a statement, Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the Nassau County district attorney’s office said: “As Judge Sullivan’s decision makes clear, there is no legal significance to a phone being found inside or outside the wreckage of a car that was torn to pieces and scattered across a chaotic crime scene, and nothing about the matter implicated an ‘illegal search’ as was suggested by the defense.” Authorities have alleged Beer was high on marijuana behind the wheel and speeding at more than 110 mph before he lost control of the car and smashed into a tree along the Southern State Parkway. The crash killed four of his friends and Beer, who is currently on trial, is facing up to 25 years in prison if convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter, manslaughter, operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs, reckless driving and reckless endangerment.

Beer’s defense lawyer has said his client smoked marijuana before driving, but that he was not impaired. Beer has pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing. Testimony in the trial continues Thursday.