Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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In 2012, Appellant Frankie Rosado was accused of sexually abusing his former girlfriend’s teenage daughter, whereupon he was charged with one count each of indecent assault, corruption of minors, and unlawful contact with minor. Appellant, then represented by a public defender, proceeded to trial, whereafter he was convicted of the aforementioned offenses and later sentenced to an aggregate term of 33 to 69 months imprisonment. Appellant hired new counsel to represent him at the post-sentencing and appellate stages of his case. Appellate Counsel filed a postsentence motion raising, as relevant here, a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim, but the trial court denied relief. Appellate Counsel then filed a notice of appeal to the Superior Court which later summarily affirmed the trial court's judgment. Appellant later filed for post-conviction relief, arguing he received ineffective assistance of counsel. In his application, appellant argued that Appellate Counsel filed a document styled as a “preliminary” concise statement, wherein he raised three issues for appeal, but failed to file a revised concise statement. When the appellate brief was filed, Appellate Counsel abandoned the three issues raised in the preliminary statement and raised three others. In an unpublished memorandum opinion, the Superior Court, while noting the three issues preserved in Appellant’s concise statement, found a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim to be waived, as it was not included therein. The PCRA court found that Appellate Counsel’s conduct did not amount to ineffectiveness per se, and, accordingly, denied relief. So the issue for the Supreme Court's review was whether filing an appellate brief which abandoned all preserved issues in favor of unpreserved ones constituted ineffective assistance of counsel per se. After careful review, the Court held that it did, and so the Court vacated the Superior Court’s order and remanded this case back to that court for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Rosado" on Justia Law

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Sheldon Hannibal appealed an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County denying his petition for relief from his death sentence. In 1992, Hannibal and a co-defendant, Larry Gregory, got into an argument with the victim, Peter LaCourt. LaCourt was pistol whipped before attempting to flee. Hannibal shot LaCourt six times. A fifteen-year-old girl witnessed the robbery and beating, and later gave statements to police, implicating Hannibal and Gregory. She also testified at their preliminary hearings. However, she and two of her female friends were murdered "execution-style" in an apartment located in the same housing development where LaCourt had been murdered. The jury convicted appellant and codefendant of first-degree murder. Hannibal applied for post-conviction relief, raising a number of issues for the Supreme Court's review. Finding that Hannibal was not entitled to relief, the Court affirmed dismissal of his PCRA petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Hannibal" on Justia Law

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This direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arose from the torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old intellectually disabled woman. Over the course of two days, appellant and his five co-conspirators committed escalating acts of humiliation, abuse and torture upon Ms. Daugherty. The conspirators ultimately voted to kill Ms. Daugherty and murdered her in a vicious manner, including stabbing her in the chest, slashing her wrists and choking her. Appellant ultimately accepted responsibility by pleading guilty to first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. He received the death penalty. After careful review of appellant’s fourteen issues, the Supreme Court was "constrained" to vacate the judgment of sentence and award a new penalty hearing on appellant’s thirteenth claim. Appellant had no prior felony or misdemeanor convictions; defense counsel proposed a stipulation stating that appellant had no prior criminal history. The prosecution did not object to the introduction of appellant's criminal history, but stated he would not stipulate to a mitigating circumstance. In his case in mitigation, defense counsel instead presented evidence of appellant’s lack of convictions through the testimony of a police detective, and the Commonwealth presented no contrary evidence. In closing, the prosecutor essentially admitted the fact to which he had refused a stipulation, but then argued appellant’s lack of criminal convictions was of little significance given other circumstances of the crime. Appellant argued on appeal of his death sentence that the jury was required to conclude a statutory mitigator was established. The Commonwealth noted that while it did not rebut appellant’s lack of criminal convictions, it argued to the jury “that the lack of criminal history was insignificant” given other circumstances, and “that mitigating factor should be given no weight by the jury and not consider it a mitigating factor.” The Supreme Court vacated the sentence and remanded for further proceedings: "[W]hen it is undisputed (or indisputable) the mitigator objectively exists, it would be wise for the prosecutor to stipulate and for the jury to be directed to find the mitigator, so the death penalty statute is followed. Failure to take such measures, for whatever reason, results in the situation here: the court below . . . accepted a verdict of death that included an arbitrary failure to honor a statutory mandate." View "Pennsylvania v. Knight" on Justia Law

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In September 2004, an anonymous informant sent the City of Philadelphia a letter claiming that appellant Nathan Lerner was concealing taxable business income from the City. The City made numerous attempts to meet with Lerner in person to resolve his case, but Lerner refused the City’s offers. In 2010, Lerner filed a petition for review with the City’s Tax Review Board. The Board held a hearing, concluded that it lacked jurisdiction in light of a collection action pending at a trial court, and dismissed Lerner’s petition. Lerner appealed the Board’s dismissal to the trial court, which consolidated Lerner’s appeal with the City’s collection action. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s order quashing Lerner’s appeal. Lerner sought to delay the City’s collection action with onerous discovery requests and frivolous filings. Meanwhile, Lerner simultaneously disregarded the City’s discovery requests and refused to disclose information about his income, expenses, assets, and business interests. When the trial court ordered Lerner to comply, he violated the court’s order. As a result, the court precluded Lerner from entering any evidence at trial that he had not disclosed to the City. At the outcome of a bench trial, though the trial court found that the amount Lerner owed was “basically an amount pulled out of the sky,” Lerner had waived his right to challenge that assessment when he failed to timely petition the Board for review. Lerner appealed when the trial court denied his post-trial motion for relief. In that appeal, Lerner argued for the first time that the ground upon which the trial court's judgment was premised was misplaced. Lerner decided to assert on appeal that a taxpayer who fails to exhaust his or her administrative remedies may nonetheless challenge a tax assessment in a subsequent collection action when the taxing authority’s own evidence demonstrates that the assessment has no basis in fact. Although Lerner espoused the same argument before the Supreme Court, he did not preserve it. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court's judgment. View "City of Philadelphia v. Lerner" on Justia Law

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In this discretionary appeal, the issue presented for the Supreme Court's review was a narrow issue of whether Law Enforcement Health Benefits, Inc. (“LEHB”), a nonprofit corporation that administered health and welfare benefits to Philadelphia police officers as part of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, was authorized under the Pennsylvania Nonprofit Corporation Law (“NCL”), as well as its Articles of Incorporation, to spend some of its corporate funds to pay for a postcard sent to its members endorsing a candidate in a union election. The Supreme Court found that nothing in the NCL nor the corporation’s Articles prohibited the action at issue and that LEHB’s action was sufficiently related to its corporate purpose to be permissible. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court which held otherwise, and reinstated the trial court’s order dismissing the declaratory judgment action against LEHB. View "Zampogna v. Law Enforcement Health Benefits, Inc." on Justia Law

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In October 2009, Appellees Richard and Joyce Rost filed suit against multiple manufacturers of asbestos, averring that exposure to the defendants’ asbestos containing products caused Richard to contract mesothelioma. Before trial, the Rosts settled their claims against all defendants except for Appellant Ford Motor Company (“Ford”). Over Ford’s objections, the trial court consolidated the case for trial with two other mesothelioma cases. Trial commenced in September 2011, at which time the trial court reminded the parties of a pre-trial ruling, precluding any expert from offering testimony that “each and every breath” of asbestos may constitute an evidentiary basis for the jury to find that the defendant’s product was a substantial cause of mesothelioma. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on the proper application of the “frequency, regularity, and proximity” criteria in asbestos product liability litigation, seeking to provide further illumination on the principles set forth in its decisions in this area. After review, the Court concluded the trial court and the Superior Court properly applied those principles in this case, and thus affirmed the judgment entered in favor of Appellees. View "Rost v. Ford Motor Co." on Justia Law

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Appellant Michael R. Veon, a twenty-two-year member and eventual Minority Whip of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was entitled to $20,000 annually to cover business expenses associated with maintenance of a district office, as well as $4,000 for postage. Pursuant to House Democratic Caucus (“Caucus”) procedures, Veon could seek additional funds from Caucus leadership if he exhausted his $20,000 allocation, and it was not uncommon for Caucus members to do so. In 1991, Veon formed the Beaver Initiative for Growth (“BIG”), a non-profit corporation. BIG received all of its funding from public sources, primarily through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (“DCED”). Veon's Beaver County district office initially shared space with BIG, but opened two more district offices, for which the rent easily exceeded his caucus allotment. Veon was criminally charged with various offenses relating to BIG paying the district offices' rents. After some charges were withdrawn, Veon went to trial on nineteen counts. In the portion of the jury charge that was relevant to Veon’s appeal to the Supreme Court, the trial court defined the pecuniary requirement in the conflict of interest statute. The statute prohibited public officials from leveraging the authority of their offices for “private pecuniary benefit;” at issue here was whether or not that benefit extended to what the trial court in this case referred to as “intangible political gain.” In addition, another issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth could receive restitution following prosecution of a public official for a crime involving unlawful diversion of public resources. The Court concluded the trial court committed prejudicial error in its jury charge regarding conflict of interest, and that it erred in awarding restitution to the DCED. Veon's judgment of sentence was vacated, the matter remanded for a new trial on conflict of interest, and for other proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Veon" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine the propriety of a trial court considering victim impact evidence at a sentencing proceeding where the offenses at issue were not crimes against a person. The Superior Court held, as a matter of law, such evidence was irrelevant and inadmissible at sentencing under such circumstances, the trial court therefore abused its discretion, and resentencing was required. The Supreme Court disagreed with this broad holding and, in particular, the construction of 42 Pa.C.S. Section 9738 as a provision circumscribing evidentiary relevance at sentencing. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Superior Court's order and remanded for resentencing. View "Pennsylvania v. Ali" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania State Education Association was an organization made up of 150,000 public school teachers, support staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries and teachers’ aides. In 2009, the organization and fourteen of its member public school employees (collectively, “PSEA”) filed suit against the Office of Open Records, its Executive Director, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (collectively, the “OOR”), seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent the release of home addresses of public school employees, and a declaration that the home addresses of public school employees are exempt from public access. PSEA asserted that numerous school districts had received requests for the names and addresses of public school employees, and some had already released this information. Contending that the public school employees lacked any adequate procedural remedy to prevent the release of private information protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review involved an examination of the scope of the “personal security” exception to disclosure under the Right to Know Law (“RTKL”), and, more specifically, whether school districts must disclose the home addresses of public school employees. Under the prior Right to Know Act, (repealed, effective January 1, 2009) (“RTKA”), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had on three occasions ruled that certain types of information, including home addresses, implicated the right to privacy under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and thus required a balancing to determine whether the right to privacy outweighs the public’s interest in dissemination. "Our task here is to determine whether this analysis continues to obtain under the RTKL. We hold that it does." View "Pennsylvania State Ed. Assoc. v. Pennsylania" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Rahiem Fant pled not guilty to various charges related to an incident during which he allegedly stabbed a man in the abdomen and arm. While waiting for trial, he was detained at the Clinton County Correctional Facility. In 2014, approximately one week before his scheduled trial, Fant’s counsel received from the Commonwealth a production of recordings made at the Facility. All but two of the recordings consisted of conversations that occurred between Fant and his visitors in the Facility’s visitation room. As a result of these recorded visit conversations, law enforcement personnel retrieved additional evidence they sought to use at trial. Fant filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude at trial the visit conversation recordings and the evidence discovered as a result of them. He argued that the recordings violated Pennsylvania's Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act. The Commonwealth countered that Section 5704(14) of the Act permitted these recordings because it authorized county correctional facilities to record “any telephone calls from or to an inmate,” as long as certain conditions were met. Following a hearing, the suppression court granted Fant’s motion to suppress, making several findings of fact before concluding that the visit conversations were not “telephone calls” because the “every day common sense use of the word telephone does not include this scenario.” The Commonwealth appealed, and the issue before the Supreme Court was whether the calls made on the "telephone" system for visit conversations were indeed "telephone calls." On this point, the Supreme Court affirmed the suppression court, finding that the "telephone" system as used by the prison system was not a telephone in its ordinary meaning under the Act, and therefore were not subject to an exception under the Act. View "Pennsylvania v. Fant" on Justia Law