Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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This appeal involved a constitutional challenge to a provision of the City of Philadelphia's Property Maintenance Code that required owners of vacant buildings that were a “blighting influence” to secure all spaces designed as windows with working glazed windows and all entryways with working doors. Appellees, owners of a vacant property that was cited for violating this ordinance challenged the provision, largely contending that it was an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s police power. The City’s Board of License and Inspection Review (“Board”) rejected Owners’ arguments; however, the trial court agreed with Owners and deemed the ordinance unconstitutional. The Commonwealth Court affirmed, concluding that the ordinance was an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s police power because it was concerned with the aesthetic appearance of vacant buildings, not the safety risks posed by blight. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth Court and trial court erred in this regard, and vacated their orders and remanded the matter to the trial court for consideration of Owners’ remaining issues. View "Rufo v. City of Phila." on Justia Law

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In April 2012, Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Kosko initiated a routine traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Appellant Jamal Knox. Appellant’s co-defendant, Rashee Beasley, was in the front passenger seat. While Officer Kosko was questioning Appellant, the latter sped away, ultimately crashing his vehicle. He and Beasley fled on foot, but were quickly apprehended and placed under arrest. The police found fifteen stamp bags containing heroin and a large sum of cash on Appellant’s person, as well as a loaded, stolen firearm on the driver’s-side floor of the vehicle. At the scene of the arrest, Appellant gave the police a false name. When Detective Daniel Zeltner, who was familiar with both Appellant and Beasley, arrived, he informed the officers of Appellant’s real name. Appellant and Beasley were charged with a number of offenses. While the charges were pending, Appellant and Beasley wrote and recorded a rap song entitled, “F--k the Police,” which was put on video with still photos of Appellant and Beasley displayed in a montage. In the photos, the two are looking into the camera and motioning as if firing weapons. The video was uploaded to YouTube by a third party, and the YouTube link was placed on a publicly-viewable Facebook page entitled “Beaz Mooga,” which the trial evidence strongly suggested belonged to Beasley. The song’s lyrics express hatred toward the Pittsburgh police. As well, they contain descriptions of killing police informants and police officers. In this latter regard, the lyrics referred to Officer Kosko and Detective Zeltner by name. In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permitted the imposition of criminal liability based on the publication of the music video containing threatening lyrics directed to named law enforcement officers. "Pennsylvania’s legislative body has made such a policy judgment by enacting statutes which prohibit the making of terroristic threats and the intimidation of witnesses, and for the reasons given Appellant cannot prevail on his claim that his convictions under those provisions offend the First Amendment." View "Pennsylvania v. Knox" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was the "breadth of gubernatorial power" concerning home health care services, and whether Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Wolf's executive order (2015-05) was an impermissible exercise of his authority. The Order focused on the in-home personal (non-medical) services provided by direct care workers (“DCW”) to elderly and disabled residents who receive benefits in the form of DCW services in their home rather than institutional settings (“participants”), pursuant to the Attendant Care Services Act (“Act 150”). After careful consideration of the Order, the Supreme Court concluded Governor Wolf did not exceed his constitutional powers. Thus, the Court vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded for additional proceedings. View "Markham, et al v. Wolf" on Justia Law

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In this discretionary appeal, Javonn Clancy challenged the dismissal of the petition he filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). In that petition, Clancy alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to purportedly inflammatory statements made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. Specifically, the prosecutor characterized Clancy as a “dangerous man” and a “cold blooded killer.” After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that within the context of this case, the prosecutor’s statements constituted permissible "oratorical flair." Accordingly, the Court concluded Clancy’s claim of ineffectiveness of counsel lacked arguable merit. View "Pennsylvania v. Clancy" on Justia Law

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This appeal centered on a challenge to the practice of requiring private attorneys who may be privy to confidential information related to a grand jury investigation to commit to maintaining the secrecy of all information they may acquire regarding the grand jury. The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016. Under the authority of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, subpoenas requiring the production of documents were recently issued to the Dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg (“Appellants” or the “Dioceses”). Their counsel requested a copy of the notice of submission that the Office of the Attorney General (the “OAG”) had provided to the supervising judge. The supervising judge replied that he would furnish a copy of this notice to counsel, but that counsel first would be required to sign and submit appearance form, which included an oath or affirmation to keep all that transpired in the Grand Jury room secret (under threat of penalty of contempt). Counsel declined to accept these terms, however, and Appellants lodged a joint motion to strike the non-disclosure provision from the entry-of-appearance form. They argued that the requirement of secrecy was not authorized by the Investigating Grand Jury Act, both as to the obligation being imposed upon counsel and, alternatively, in terms of the breadth of that duty. The Dioceses’ lead contention was that the secrecy requirement of 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4549(b) did not apply to private attorneys, positing that, “[b]y its terms,” Section 4549(b) applies only to persons who are “sworn to secrecy” -- i.e., those who are required in practice to sign an oath of secrecy -- such as “Commonwealth attorneys, grand jurors, stenographers, typists, and operators of recording equipment.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded an attorney would will be privy to matters occurring before an investigating grand jury shall be sworn to secrecy per the requirements of the Investigating Grand Jury Act, either via an appropriately tailored entry-of-appearance form or otherwise. The obligation of confidentially generally extends to all matters occurring before the grand jury, which includes, but is not limited to, what transpires in a grand jury room. A lawyer otherwise subject to secrecy, however, may disclose a client’s own testimony to the extent that the client would otherwise be free to do so under applicable law. Such disclosure is also subject to the client’s express, knowing, voluntary, and informed consent; the Rules of Professional Conduct; and specific curtailment by a supervising judge in discrete matters following a hearing based on cause shown. View "In Re: 40th Statewide IGJ" on Justia Law

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Police stopped appellee Alexis Popielarcheck after observing her weaving onto and over road markers. A blood draw confirmed that she had in her system a combination of alprazolam, marijuana, cocaine, benzoylecognine, and hydrocodone. Popielarcheck plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of DUI, 75 Pa.C.S. 3802(d)(1)(i) (marijuana) and (d)(2) (various). The sentencing court modified her bail to require that she attend and complete recommended treatment at Greenbriar Treatment Center. Popielarcheck began treatment on June 23, 2015 and completed it on July 14, 2015. On September 1, 2015, the court conducted a sentencing hearing. Her discharge summary from Greenbriar, which was admitted into evidence without objection, reflected that her prognosis at the time of discharge was “poor” and that her success would depend upon her following through with aftercare recommendations. Popielarcheck, who had one prior DUI conviction in 2007, testified to relapsing “many times over.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider the interplay between two alternative sentencing schemes for persons convicted of a second offense for driving under the influence or alcohol or a controlled substance (“DUI”). In particular, the Court agreed to decide whether, when sentencing a repeat offender in need of further treatment to county intermediate punishment (“CIP”) under section 9763 of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa.C.S. 9763, the sentencing court must impose the statutory maximum sentence under section 3804(d) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. 3804(d). The Court concluded the Sentencing Code and the Vehicle Code establish independent alternative sentencing schemes, the sentencing court in this case was not required to impose the statutory maximum sentence when ordering Popielarcheck to serve a CIP sentence. Accordingly, the order of the Superior Court was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Popielarcheck" on Justia Law

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The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016 when the Pennsylvania Attorney General initiated confidential proceedings to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse by individuals associated with six of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church, failure to make mandatory reports, acts endangering the welfare of children, and obstruction of justice by Church officials, community leaders, and/or public officials. Prior to the expiration of its term, the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury submitted a report of the above investigation to its supervising judge, identifying over three hundred “predator priests” by name and describe their conduct in terms of “what they did -- both the sex offenders and those who concealed them[,] . . . shin[ing] a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.” Before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court were numerous petitions for review challenging the public release of "Report 1." These individuals contended the grand jury’s findings were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence and were false or misleading. Additionally, it was their position that they were denied due process of law, and that the release of the findings to the public -- under the authority of a state-sanctioned, judicially approved grand jury -- would impair their reputations in violation of their fundamental constitutional rights. As the litigation has progressed, the Supreme Court found it necessary to take measures to protect the identities of the petitioner-appellants, at least until their constitutional challenges have been finally resolved. The Commonwealth was directed to prepare a redacted version of Report 1, removing specific and contextual references to any petitioner who had an appellate challenge pending before the Supreme Court, including cases not listed in this case's caption, in a fashion that is consistent with the letter and spirit of the Court's Opinion. View "In Re: Fortieth Statewide Investigating Grand Jury -" on Justia Law

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Three disabled individuals who formerly received cash general assistance benefits from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare filed a complaint alleging that the manner in which the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted Act 80 of 2012, a piece of legislation which, inter alia, made sweeping changes to the administration of the state's human services programs, violated Article III, Sections 1, 3 and 4 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the Act was in violation of Section 4. The provisions of H.B 1261, P.N. 1385 were entirely removed from the bill by the Senate, inasmuch as they had been enacted by another piece of legislation, Act 22 of 2011. Since the original provisions were gone when the new provisions were added by the Senate, it was factually and legally impossible for the new provisions to work together with the deleted provisions to accomplish a single purpose. The Court held the amendments "to such enfeebled legislation" were not germane as a matter of law. Consequently, the Senate amendments were not germane to the provisions of H.B. 1261, P.N. 1385, and, accordingly, the three times that H.B. 1261, P.N. 1385 was passed by the House in 2011 could not count towards the requirements of Article III, Section 4. View "Washington, et al. v. Dept. of Pub. Welfare" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme COurt's review centered on the meaning of "merely corroborative or cumulative evidence" in the context of whether a new trial is warranted based on after-discovered evidence. Appellant Eric Small was identified as the shooter who killed William Price outside a nightclub in Harrisburg in 2011. No one saw the shooting, but witnesses saw appellant walking away from the club with his right arm around Price moments before the fatal gunshot. The defense argued Pedro Espada, appellant's friend who was also outside the nightclub just before the shooting, was the real shooter. In addition to circumstantial evidence, the Commonwealth presented some direct evidence of appellant's guilt through the testimony of two witnesses to whom appellant confessed about killing Price: two prison informants with whom appellant shared a cell at the Dauphin County Prison. The Supreme Court found it necessary to answer two preliminary questions central to the after-discovered evidence issue in this case: (1) did one of the witness affidavit and new testimony amount to a recantation; and (2) if so, then did the Post-Conviction Relief court believe that recantation to be true? Where appropriate, the Supreme Court has remanded matters involving after-discovered evidence claims for the PCRA court to make credibility determinations on the recanting witness testimony. Finding that the PCRA court "failed to mention, let alone pass upon" the credibility of the recantation testimony in its opinion, the Supreme Court found it necessary to remand this case for that determination. The Superior COurt's order was vacated and the case was remanded to the PCRA court for limited further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Small" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed this appeal to address the City of Philadelphia's so-called "soda tax." In June 2016, City Council enacted the challenged ordinance, which imposed a tax regarding specified categories of drinks sold, or intended to be sold, in the municipal limits. Appellants -- a group of consumers, retailers, distributors, producers, and trade associations -- filed suit against the City and the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Revenue, in the court of common pleas, challenging the legality and constitutionality of the tax and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The common pleas court differentiated the soda tax as a “non-retail, distribution level tax” and that the tax did not apply to the same transaction or subject as the state sales tax, thus, no violation of the "Sterling Act," Act of August 5, 1932, Ex. Sess., P.L. 45 (as amended 53 P.S. sections 15971–15973). A divided, en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed, the majority reasoning that in determining whether a tax was duplicative, the focus is upon the incidence of the tax; such incidence is ultimately determined according to the substantive text of the enabling legislation; and the concept of legal incidence does not concern post-tax economic actions of private actors. Because the City’s beverage tax and the state sales and use tax are imposed on different, albeit related, transactions and measured on distinct terms, the majority likewise concluded that the Sterling Act was not offended. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the Sterling Act conferred upon the City "a broad taxing power subject to preemption," while clarifying that “any and all subjects” are available for local taxation which the Commonwealth could, but does not presently, tax. The Commonwealth could, but did not, tax the distributor/dealer-level transactions or subjects targeted by the soda tax. "Moreover, the legal incidences of the Philadelphia tax and the Commonwealth’s sales and use tax are different and, accordingly, Sterling Act preemption does not apply." View "Williams v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law