Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In this capital appeal, both Appellant Lavar Brown and the Commonwealth challenged the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County's order dismissing Brown’s petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act. The the parties requested the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order that Brown’s death sentence be vacated, that his case be remanded to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County for the limited purpose of resentencing Brown to life without parole, and that the case then be transferred to the Superior Court for merits disposition of Brown's guilt phase claims. The Supreme Court reviewed the PCRA court record and determined Brown was not entitled to relief, and the PCRA court correctly denied Brown's petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Brown" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to address the scope of consent given by a motorist to law enforcement for the search of his vehicle. After review of the circumstances of this case, the Court concluded that the consent given by Appellant Randy Valdivia to Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Jeremy Hoy and David Long to search his van did not extend to a canine search occurring approximately forty minutes later. "A reasonable person in Valdivia’s position would not have understood that he was consenting to such a search." The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Valdivia" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to resolve inconsistencies between the Superior Court’s decisions in Commonwealth v. Kemp, 961 A.2d 1247 (Pa. Super. 2008) and Commonwealth v. Nguyen, 116 A.3d 657 (Pa. Super. 2015), specifically with regard to whether information obtained by a police officer during a lawful initial traffic stop may be used to justify re-engagement with the driver after the police officer indicates the driver is free to go, such that consent to search given during that re-engagement is valid. The Supreme Court concluded, under the circumstances of this case, the consent given was valid and suppression of evidence was not warranted. View "In the Int. of: A.A." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether appellee Joshua Lukach, who was subject to a custodial interrogation, clearly and unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent in accordance with the rule articulated in Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010) and, if so, whether physical evidence collected as a result of his subsequent confession was properly suppressed. After review, the Supreme Court concluded appellee unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent and was then impermissibly induced into abandoning that right, rendering his confession coerced and involuntary. As such, both his confession and the physical evidence collected as a result of that confession were properly suppressed. View "Pennsylvania v. Lukach" on Justia Law

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In 1990, appellee Daniel Crispell was convicted for first-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to death. Crispell moved for post-conviction relief: he was denied relief on his guilt-phase claims, but granted a new penalty phase after determining that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence. While his PCRA petition was pending before the PCRA court, Crispell sought leave from the PCRA court to amend his PCRA petition to add a claim pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), premised upon evidence disclosed by the State during discovery. The PCRA court denied leave to amend, concluding on jurisdictional grounds that it lacked discretion to entertain the amendment. In reaching this conclusion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the PCRA court erred as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the order of the PCRA court to the extent that it denied leave to amend to add the new Brady claim. The Court remanded for reconsideration of Crispell’s request for leave to amend to add this claim. As to all other guilt phase claims, the Court affirmed the PCRA court’s denial of relief. With respect to the Commonwealth’s cross-appeal from the grant of a new penalty phase, the Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court’s order as its findings were supported by the record and free from legal error. View "Pennsylvania v. Crispell" on Justia 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