Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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James Ball, III was charged with and tried for a summary offense before a Magisterial District Judge (“MDJ”). The MDJ convicted Ball of a lesser included offense, implicitly acquitting him of the greater charged offense. Ball appealed his conviction to the court of common pleas (“the trial court”) for a de novo trial, whereupon the Commonwealth sought to re-try him on the greater offense. The trial court allowed the Commonwealth to try Ball on the original charge, notwithstanding Ball’s objection that reinstating that charge violated the double jeopardy clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. Ball was convicted of the greater offense, and he appealed to the Superior Court. Finding merit in Ball’s double jeopardy claim, the Superior Court reversed the trial court and discharged Ball. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine whether the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy barred the Commonwealth from reinstating Ball’s implicitly-acquitted greater offense. The Court held that the Commonwealth could not prosecute a defendant for the greater offense under these circumstances. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court on this issue. Furthermore, the Court granted allocatur to decide whether the Superior Court erred when it discharged Ball after having found that the prohibition on double jeopardy precluded his retrial on the greater summary offense. On this issue, the Court concluded that the Superior Court did err. "A MDJ has the authority, sua sponte, to convict a defendant of an uncharged, lesser included offense, and the defendant has a right to have that conviction reviewed by a court of record." The case was remanded back to the trial court for a trial de novo limited only to the lesser included offense. View "Pennsylvania v. Ball III" on Justia Law

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The question this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether a cause of action existed under Pennsylvania law entitling a class of indigent criminal defendants to allege prospective, systemic violations of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel due to underfunding, and to seek and obtain an injunction forcing a county to provide adequate funding to a public defender’s office. In early 2012, a number of attorneys resigned from the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) of Luzerne County. Because the County implemented a hiring freeze in February of that year, Chief Public Defender Al Flora could not fill the positions. By April, the OPD staff consisted of only four full-time attorneys, thirteen part-time attorneys, three investigators, four secretaries, one receptionist, and one office administrator. The OPD continued to operate with five unfilled attorney positions, three full-time and two part-time. Most of the attorneys who worked for the OPD did not have their own desks, telephones, or computers. One part-time attorney informed Flora that he could not accept any more cases because, due to his current caseload, he could not satisfy his ethical duties to any additional defendants. Despite Flora’s efforts, no additional funding was forthcoming, and none appeared likely, Flora, along with plaintiffs Samantha Volciak, Yolanda Holman, Charles Hammonds (collectively, plaintiffs), and on behalf of unnamed but similarly situated individuals, filed a class action lawsuit against Luzerne County and Robert Lawton, its County Manager (collectively, Appellees). Simultaneously, plaintiffs brought a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim, and a claim under Article I, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, seeking an injunction against Appellees requiring the immediate appointment of private counsel to assist them in their defenses and requiring additional funding to satisfy the OPD’s obligation to ensure that all qualified applicants receive competent legal representation. Two days later, plaintiffs moved for a peremptory writ of mandamus and a preliminary injunction. Pursuant to "Gideon v. Wainwright," (372 U.S. 335 (1963)) and its progeny, and because remedies for Sixth Amendment violations need not await conviction and sentencing, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that such a cause of action existed, so long as the class action plaintiffs demonstrate “the likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury, and the inadequacy of remedies at law.” View "Kuren, et al v. Luzerne County" on Justia Law

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This was a direct appeal from a common pleas court order invalidating a statutory provision giving grandparents standing to seek custody of their minor grandchildren. The question this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the parents’ fundamental rights were violated by the conferral of standing based solely on a parental separation lasting at least six months. Appellees G.J.P. and A.P. (“Parents”) married in 2006 and had three children. Parents separated in October 2012, albeit they did not initiate divorce proceedings. Because they were in agreement as to custody matters while living separately, Parents never sought court involvement and no custody order was issued prior to this litigation. In December 2012, Parents mutually agreed that all contact between the children and their paternal grandparents, appellants D.P. and B.P. (“Grandparents”), should have been discontinued. The grandparents filed suit seeking partial custody of the minor children. Grandparents did not suggest that Parents were unfit or that the children were in any danger. As their basis for standing, they relied on Section 5325 of the Domestic Relations Code (the “Code”). "Section 5325 cannot survive strict scrutiny and, as such, it violates the fundamental rights of parents safeguarded by the Due Process Clause." Upon review, the Supreme Court "salvag[ed the] statute to the extent possible without judicially rewriting it" by severing the first half of paragraph (2) from the remainder of paragraph (2) and the remainder of Section 5325 generally. The Court then affirmed dismissal of the grandparents' petition. View "D.P. v. G.J.P." on Justia Law

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M.D. (“Mother”) met M.C. (“Father”) in 2002, when she was teaching in South Dakota, and the two became romantically involved, residing together until Mother returned to Pennsylvania in October 2003. Father briefly moved to Pennsylvania in January 2004 to be with Mother; however, the relationship quickly ended, and he ultimately returned to South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, Mother learned that she was pregnant with twin boys, and she moved in with her parents, who resided in Lycoming County. Although Father was aware that Mother was pregnant with his children, Father and Mother spoke infrequently throughout the pregnancy, and he did not visit. In October 2004, Mother gave birth to M.R.D. and T.M.D. Father visited for a few days following Children’s birth and returned for visits in December 2004 and January 2006; however, Father did not visit again, and his subsequent efforts at maintaining a relationship with Children were marginal at best. When Mother discussed the possibility of traveling with Children to South Dakota to visit with Father and his family, Father refused. In this appeal by allowance, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether, in order to facilitate the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, a grandfather could adopt his grandchildren with the children’s mother - his daughter. After review, the Supreme Court found the “cause” exception in the Adoption Act, 23 Pa.C.S. section 2901, did not under such circumstances, excuse a mother from the Act’s requirement that she relinquish her parental rights. Accordingly, as the contemplated adoption could not proceed, the Court reversed the order affirming the termination of the father’s parental rights. View "In Re: Adopt. of M.R.D. and T.M.D." on Justia Law

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In 2002, a jury convicted Manuel Sepulveda of two counts of first-degree murder and related charges for the deaths of John Mendez and Ricardo Lopez. The jury sentenced Sepulveda to death for each of the murders. At issue in this appeal was whether, following remand from an appellate court with specific instructions, a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) court may treat new claims raised by the petitioner, which were outside the scope of the remand order, as amending the petitioner’s first, timely PCRA petition. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that because the PCRA petition had been fully adjudicated, and because the PCRA court was required to proceed in conformance with the remand order, the PCRA court was without authority to permit amendment. View "Pennsylvania v. Sepulveda" on Justia Law

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The issue raised by this appeal centered on whether power was invested in a school reform commission, under a statutory regime designed to facilitate rehabilitation of financially distressed school districts, to unilaterally alter terms and conditions of employment for teachers whose interests were represented by a bargaining unit. In December 2001, the Secretary of Education issued a declaration of financial distress pertaining to the District, and a school reform commission (SRC or “Commission”) was constituted and assumed responsibility for the District’s operations, management, and educational program, per Section 696 of the School Code. Throughout the ensuing years, the SRC and appellee Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT, Local 3, AFL-CIO (the “Union”), negotiated several collective bargaining agreements. The SRC invoked Sections 693(a)(1) of the School Code, as incorporated into Section 696(i), to “make specific limited changes and to implement . . . modified economic terms and conditions for employees in the bargaining units represented by the [Union], consistent with economic terms proposed in negotiations, while maintaining all other existing terms and conditions to the extent required by law[.]” The Commission predicted that the changes would save about $44 million in 2014 through 2015 and $198 million over four years. Ultimately, the resolution purported to cancel the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the District and the Union, to the extent that it continued to govern the parties’ relations. The Commission, the District, and the Department of Education then filed a declaratory judgment action at the Commonwealth Court, asking the Court to uphold the imposition of the new economic terms and conditions as being authorized by applicable law. The Court found that the right of cancellation under Sections 693(a)(1) and 696(i) did not reach such agreements, and that on account of a prescription within Section 693 that “the special board of control shall have power to require the board of directors within sixty (60) days” to implement measures encompassing the cancellation power, the cancellation power could only have been exercised within 60 days after the December 2001 declaration of distress. The Supreme Court reviewed the Commonwealth Court's judgment, and affirmed the outcome, but on differing grounds. The Supreme Court held at least insofar as teachers were concerned, that collective bargaining agreements were “teachers’ contracts” which were excepted from a school reform commission’s cancellation powers. View "Phila. Fed. of Teachers v. SD of Phila." on Justia Law

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In 2008, Scott Kingston was driving home from a party with his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Mroz, who was sitting in the passenger seat. Kingston drove his vehicle off the road and into a ditch. When police officers arrived, Mroz told them that Kingston, who was visibly intoxicated, had been driving the vehicle. The police arrested Kingston and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance (“DUI”) and several other Motor Vehicle Code violations. Kingston had three prior DUI convictions. If convicted of a fourth, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of one-year incarceration. Prior to his trial, Kingston sent Mroz three letters from jail, where he was being held on charges unrelated to this appeal. In his first letter, Kingston asked Mroz to speak to Kingston’s parents, and to find out whether they were willing to testify that Kingston’s father was driving the vehicle on the night of the accident. A few weeks later, Kingston sent Mroz a second letter, asking her to tell "them" that she was driving on the night of the accident, assuring Mroz that if she took the blame for the collision "they" could only "give [her] a fine." Kingston sent Mroz a third letter, again discussing his strategy if Mroz took blame for the accident and "pleading the 5th." Contrary to Kingston’s wishes, Mroz testified that Kingston was driving at the time of the accident. Kingston proceeded to trial. However, due to an administrative oversight, Mroz did not receive notice that the Commonwealth had subpoenaed her to testify at Kingston’s trial until after it had commenced. When she failed to appear on the morning of Kingston’s trial, the court issued a bench warrant for Mroz and proceeded without her. The jury ultimately acquitted Kingston after Kingston’s father falsely testified that he was driving the vehicle on the night in question. The day after Kingston’s trial, Mroz met with a detective and explained the subpoena mix-up. Mroz also told the detective about the letters that Kingston had sent to her from jail. The Commonwealth subsequently charged Kingston with, inter alia, three counts of soliciting perjury and three counts of soliciting to hinder apprehension or prosecution. The question on appeal of the denial of PCRA relief this case, raised under a derivative theory of ineffective assistance of counsel, was whether Section 906 of the Crimes Code proscribed only convictions for two or more distinct inchoate crimes, or whether it also prohibited convictions for two or more counts of the same inchoate crime. The Supreme Court held that Section 906 barred convictions only for multiple distinct inchoate crimes. Because the Superior Court concluded otherwise in remanding for an ineffectiveness hearing, the Supreme Court reversed. View "Pennsylvania v. Kingston" on Justia Law

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An investigation led police to secure a search warrant for a residence in Lancaster County, where appellant Thomas-Lutz-Morrison lived with his mother and brother. A March 2, 2012, search led to the seizure of four computers and an Apple iPhone 4. On the same day, appellant admitted to detectives he had downloaded child pornography files to his computer. An examination revealed 142 child pornography videos and 45 child pornography images on the computer along with 15 child pornography images on appellant’s iPhone. Appellant was charged with 77 counts of sexual abuse of children (possession of child pornography). Appellant entered an open plea of guilty to three counts of possession of child pornography; the remaining charges were withdrawn by the Commonwealth. That same day, appellant was sentenced to consecutive one-year terms of probation on each count. The trial court also notified appellant his convictions subjected him to lifetime registration under SORNA as a Tier III offender. Appellant reserved an objection to that classification, averring the statute was ambiguous, and the only reason it arguably was triggered was because his plea encompassed more than one count. On appeal to the Superior Court, appellant claimed he should be classified as a Tier I offender because his multiple Tier I convictions arose from a single nonviolent course of conduct, and his plea occurred in a single hearing. The Superior Court affirmed in a memorandum opinion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review of the question whether appellant was properly subject to lifetime reporting under SORNA. Decided after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in "A.S. v. Pa. State Police, ( __A.3d __(2016)), the Court found that, like the "A.S." case, appellant here was charged in a single information arising from the search of his property; he entered court as a first-time offender on those charges and pled guilty to three counts - all Tier I offenses; and there were no direct victims of his crimes, much less multiple direct victims. "As such, the statute requires an act, a conviction, and a subsequent act to trigger lifetime registration for multiple offenses otherwise subject to a fifteen- or twenty-five-year period of registration." The Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for imposition of a fifteen-year reporting requirement under SORNA. View "Pennsylvania v. Lutz-Morrison" on Justia Law

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In this appeal by the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) from a grant of mandamus relief, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revisited an issue concerning the proper construction of the lifetime-registration triggering language “two or more convictions” in Pennsylvania’s former sex offender registration statute, Megan’s Law II (superseded by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)). This dispute arose after appellee had completed his sentence for the underlying crimes. Proceeding under a belief he was subject to a ten-year SORNA registration period (a belief shared at sentencing by the court and the prosecutor), appellee filed a Petition for Review in the Nature of a Complaint in Mandamus in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction shortly before expiration of that period. The petition sought to compel PSP to correct appellee’s sexual offender registration status from lifetime registrant to ten-year registrant and to remove him from the registry when the ten-year period expired. In the course of litigation, the parties attached exhibits including the transcripts from appellee’s guilty plea and sentencing proceedings; ultimately, the parties stipulated discovery was unnecessary and cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. PSP maintained any person with two or more qualifying convictions at the moment of sentencing, such as appellee, was subject to lifetime registration. PSP claimed it properly interpreted and applied the statute and appellee had no right to mandamus relief. After review, the Supreme Court held that the provision, considered in the context of the statutory language as a whole, was amenable to two reasonable constructions. The Court held that the registration statute, which set forth a graduated scheme of registration, encompassed a recidivist philosophy. The Court therefore concluded the statute required an act, a conviction, and a subsequent act to trigger lifetime registration for multiple offenses otherwise triggering a ten-year period of registration. Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "A.S. v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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Wayne Mitchell appealed the dismissal of his second petition for relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). Mitchell was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the September 10, 1997 murder of his estranged wife, Robin Little. The PCRA court dismissed Mitchell's petition without a hearing, determining the application was untimely made. The Supreme Court agreed and affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Mitchell" on Justia Law