Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Harrisburg Police Officer Darin Bates and Dauphin County Adult Probation Officer (APO) Richard Anglemeyer were traveling in an unmarked police vehicle in an area known for frequent drug activity when they observed two men conversing on a street corner; one of those men was Appellant Khiri Arter. Notwithstanding Appellant's objection, APO Anglemeyer performed a pat-down search of Appellant and felt a bulge in the right coin pocket of Appellant's pants. APO Anglemeyer reached into Appellant's pocket and retrieved what appeared to be crack cocaine. APO Anglemeyer then "turned the case over to Officer Bates," who arrested Appellant. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this matter to determine whether illegally-obtained evidence which was suppressed during criminal proceedings should likewise be suppressed during parole and probation revocation proceedings pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court concluded that it should, reversed the Superior Court's order affirming the trial court's denial of Appellant's motion to suppress, vacated the order revoking Appellant's parole, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Arter" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court’s review centered on whether, pursuant to section 8327(b)(2) of the Public School Employees’ Retirement Code, 24 Pa.C.S.A. 8327(b)(2), the school district that originally approved the creation of a charter school was financially responsible, after the revocation of the charter, for the charter school’s prior failure to make payments to its employees’ retirement fund. The Court surmised the question hinged upon whether unpaid retirement contributions constituted an outstanding obligation of the closed charter school. The Court concluded that the deficiency resulting from the failure to make the payments was indeed an outstanding financial obligation of a closed charter school and therefore, pursuant to section 17-1729-A(i) of the Charter School Law, 24 P.S. section 17-1729-A(i), the school district could not be held liable for the amounts owed. View "Pocono Mtn. Sch. Dist. v. Dept. of Educ." on Justia Law

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Philadelphia police officers executed a search warrant for a residence where appellant Kareem Barnes lived with his two younger brothers. The search of one of the bedrooms yielded a firearm, assorted drugs and drug paraphernalia. As a result, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with possession with intent to deliver ("PWID"), possession of a firearm prohibited, and other related charges. Appellant waived his right to a jury trial and proceeded to a bench trial. At trial, Appellant's youngest brother testified that he, not Appellant, occupied the bedroom where the seized items were found and he, not Appellant, owned the contraband. The trial court, however, did not credit the brother's testimony, and instead, found Appellant guilty of the crimes charged. The trial court sentenced Appellant to 5 to 10 years' imprisonment on the PWID conviction, which included a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence based on the trial court's finding that Appellant was in constructive possession of drugs "in close proximity to" a firearm. No further penalty was imposed for the other convictions. This appeal presented the issue of whether a challenge, on direct appeal, alleging that a mandatory minimum sentence violated "Alleyne v. United States," (133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013)), implicating the "legality" of a sentence for issue preservation purposes, and thus was not waivable. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that an "Alleyne" challenge implicated legality of sentence, and that Appellant's sentence violated "Alleyne." Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court's decision, vacated Appellant's judgment of sentence, and remanded for resentencing. View "Pennsylvania v. Barnes" on Justia Law

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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