Former York City cop challenges evidence, charges in molestation case

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Former York City Police officer Joseph Palmer Jr. allegedly called a buddy with a question last year.

The department just put him on leave the day before, the heat was on, and Palmer reportedly wanted to know: Did a teenager he knows accuse him of molestation and soliciting underage porn?

He made the call to a friend at York County Children Youth and Families on March 5, 2022, asking if a Childline referral was made on the teen’s behalf, according to court and charging documents.

According to a 2019 newsletter, Joseph Palmer Jr. served in the Army National Guard, as a Lancaster County Corrections CERT officer and as a York County 911 dispatcher before joining the York City Police Department.

Investigators allege Palmer told his friend a couple things about the teen, like that they messaged each other on Snapchat, and there was a time they went to a bowling alley and his girlfriend confronted them. He also allegedly admitted to the friend that he called 911 the morning before — the day he was placed on leave — to try and get answers on where the Childline referral came from.

The friend was apparently near the Ring security camera at their home, and the system caught and recorded video and audio the conversation, court documents show.

Investigators took the recording into evidence as part of a sexual assault case against Palmer.

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His attorney, Christopher Ferro, argued the recording can’t be used because it violates prohibitions in Pennsylvania’s Wire Tap Act. He said Palmer didn’t know his private phone call was recorded, and he didn’t consent to it.

“My client would have no idea that a person he made a private call to was on a Ring camera and recording the call,” Ferro said.

Ferro also challenged whether investigators have evidence to prove Palmer sent sexually charged posts to the teen over social media.

The 29-year-old from Dover Township faces counts of indecent assault of a minor, corruption of minors, unlawful sexual contact with a minor, unlawful sexual communication with a minor, having sexual images of a minor on a computer and child pornography.

The charges stem from accusations that a mentor-like relationship Palmer had with a teenager turned sexual, and that he allegedly molested the teen twice between September 2021 and January 2022.

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York County detectives alleged that messages between the two on Snapchat also grew sexual as they said Palmer asked the teen lewd questions, asked for lewd photos and videos, and sent lewd images of himself. Other conversations involved talk of having a romantic relationship, charging documents show.

At the same time, Palmer was accused of asking the teen to delete conversations and other items from her phone.

The teen broke things off with Palmer by February 2022 and blocked him on social media, police said.

Her parents then learned of the situation in early March, and the report was filed.

Investigators allege Palmer called 911 the morning of March 4, 2022, before he reported to the department, to ask whether a report involving the victim was filed.

After he got to work, he learned an accusation had been made against him, and he was placed on leave while under investigation, the criminal complaint shows.

Palmer then allegedly called his friend the next day to ask about the report again.

A social media post announcing Joseph Palmer Jr.'s appointment as the York City Police Department's juvenile engagement officer.

Ferro challenged the Ring recording of the call and other evidence in motions filed in February. The documents call for excluding certain evidence and dropping some of the charges.

He argued Palmer had an expectation his conversation wasn’t intercepted and recorded without his consent at the time. Using the recording as evidence would violate the Wire Tap Act, he said, which bars the interception of wire, electronic and oral communication.

Ferro also argued Palmer’s phone call wasn’t a crime, and he believes the call doesn’t fall under Wire Tap Act’s exceptions for when intercepted communications can be used.

Ferro said Palmer made the call as an “act of curiosity” to ask about the report against him. He didn’t ask his friend to delete or interfere with the report, nor did he use his role as an officer to dig into more information, the filings show.

On top of the Ring recording, several witnesses also reportedly told investigators about how Palmer had sent them lewd images via Snapchat during their relationships, the filings show. Ferro argued the witnesses didn’t make complaints about the images.

Ferro also questioned the possibility that prosecutors would use Palmer’s decision to leave York after he was placed on leave against him as a sign of a guilty conscience. He argued Palmer traveled to Philadelphia to be with family and seek mental health treatment.

In making these points, Ferro argued that leaving the area for treatment and Palmer’s conduct on Snapchat with the witnesses that investigators interviewed aren’t relevant to the criminal case.

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Instead, he believes such evidence would primarily put Palmer under a negative light, implying that he has “low character,” which could prejudice him to a jury. The phone call with his CYF buddy could also cause prejudice by painting Palmer negatively as an officer who sought to abuse his authority to get information, Ferro argued.

"These challenges are a critical first step in defending against these unsupported claims,” he said. “Our goal is to secure a fair trial.”

At the same time, in a habeas corpus motion, Ferro argued investigators don’t have evidence that Palmer and the teen exchanged sexual images as alleged.

He said investigators got dozens of search warrants that included seeking all digital and electronic communications between Palmer and the teen. But, in discovery he received, Ferro saw no evidence of images, video or depictions of any sexual acts.

He argued there is no independent proof Palmer sent inappropriate images or received any from the teen.

“No evidence whatsoever with exception of inconsistent and uncorroborated statements of the alleged victim,” Ferro said.

His petition calls for dismissing the unlawful sexual communication with a minor, sexual images and child pornography charges from the case. He argued there’s insufficient evidence to support the counts.

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The York County District Attorney’s Office declined to speak about the filings, saying it cannot comment on pending cases.

The teen’s father also declined to comment on the situation.

A hearing on Ferro’s petitions, as well as an update on the status of the case, is scheduled for May 8 in the York County Court of Common Pleas.

Palmer is currently free on an unsecured $50,000 bail. He joined the York City Police Department in 2017 and became a juvenile engagement officer with the department in March 2021.

He resigned last April, about a month after he was placed on leave during the investigation.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.