Jury finds former Pocono cop not guilty of raping woman in custody

·3 min read

Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of sexual assault. The complainant’s name has been withheld to protect her identity.

A former Pocono Mountain Regional Police officer who had sex with a woman after he arrested her for drunk driving on Oct. 16, 2019, was found not guilty on all counts related to sexual assault.

The woman’s blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit by the time corporal Steven Mertz pulled her over for an expired registration. She gripped the frame of her Mitsubishi to stay upright and failed three consecutive field sobriety tests, Mertz said. The corporal handcuffed her and helped her into the back of his patrol car shortly before 3 a.m.

She was pretty, he testified later. And she cried a lot. As they drove from the site of her arrest to the Pennsylvania State Police barracks, Mertz began to reassure her: "We’ll figure this out."

One hour later, Mertz had sex with the 26-year-old woman against his patrol car in an empty cul-de-sac near her home. Detectives found Mertz’s DNA on a vaginal swab taken by the woman, as well as traces of her saliva on the crotch of his uniform pants. The prosecutor said Mertz compelled the young woman to have sex with him in exchange for not filing the DUI charge against her.

“I just took it," the woman said in a text to her best friend after Mertz returned her home. "He told me he would make this go away.”

Twelve jurors, split into six men and six women, returned the unanimous "not guilty" verdict on nine of 11 charges against Mertz after deliberating for just over twohours Monday. He was found guilty of bribery, a third-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree misdemeanor.

Assistant district attorney Michael Mancuso shook his head once the decision was read. The verdict concluded a weeklong trial that blended emotional testimony with line-by-line narration of messages shared between Mertz and his accuser.

“You’re a thousand percent sure I’m not getting the DUI from last night?” the woman asked in one. “Yes,” Mertz texted back. “I’m sure. Positive.” The report would get lost among all his other reports, he said. It was their secret.

Mertz testified later that he was lying to the woman. He said he planned to file the DUI charge but was "stringing her along" because he wanted to keep having sex with her. Mertz, who was 53 at the time of the incident, argued that his role as her arresting officer did not constitute as an imbalance of power, nor did her impairment preclude her from being able to consent.

Brett Riegel, Mertz’s attorney, called the on-duty sex “unforgivable from a job perspective,” but insisted that no crime had been committed. After all, he argued, it had been the woman who asked Mertz if he wanted her to perform oral sex.

The offer was born out of fear, the woman testified. She said Mertz drove her home after processing her blood alcohol content at the PSP barracks but didn't let her out of the car. He suggested they go somewhere private, she said, then drove to the cul-de-sac a street away.

She said the expectation felt clear. When Mertz parked and blocked her exit from the patrol car again, she asked if he wanted oral sex. According to her, he responded: "That will help."

Mertz, a third-generation law enforcement officer, denied ever making the comment. He was put on paid administrative leave on Oct. 17, 2019, but resigned on Oct. 21 when a detective with the DA's office filed official criminal charges against him.

He will be formally sentenced for the bribery and obstruction charge at 9 a.m. on June 28.

Hannah Phillips is the public safety reporter at Pocono Record. Reach her at hphillips@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Ex-cop accused of raping Poconos woman on duty found not guilty