Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Appellant Kevin Bundy appealed pro se the deduction of funds from his prisoner account to satisfy financial obligations imposed as part of his criminal sentences. He contends, primarily, that he was constitutionally entitled to predeprivation notice and a hearing before such deductions began. Several of Appellant’s averments focused on the alleged impropriety of making deductions from gifts from family and friends. Others claim an entitlement to an ability-to-pay hearing, which, under prevailing Pennsylvania law as established by the Commonwealth Court, would only be implicated in relation to Act 84 deductions if there had been a “material change of circumstances” - such as a threat of additional confinement or increased conditions of supervision as a result of unpaid financial obligations. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Appellant’s first theory relating to gifted funds. Still, construing Appellant’s pro se averments with some leniency, the Court found he has alleged that, due to his indigence, the deductions have adversely affected his ability to litigate his PCRA petition. The Court found this allegation “resonant” because the change-in-circumstances prerequisite, as developed by the Commonwealth Court, was grounded on the premise that the prisoner can obtain meaningful merits review of the financial aspects of his sentence through direct appeal or post-conviction proceedings. If (as asserted) that opportunity was substantially encumbered by the Department of Corrections’ Act 84 deductions, an issue arises whether the “George/Ingram” rule should be extended to encompass such a circumstance. “[T]he law does not say with certainty that no relief is available. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court should not have sustained Appellees’ demurrer.” The order of the Commonwealth Court was reversed and the matter was remanded to that court for further proceedings. View "Bundy v. Wetzel et al" on Justia Law

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In two discretionary appeals consolidated for opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tackled an unsettled question in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. In Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment prohibited law enforcement officers from making a warrantless and nonconsensual entry into a residence for the purpose of conducting a routine felony arrest. In dictum expressed at the end of its opinion, the Payton Court stated that a warrant requirement for arrests in the home placed no undue burden on law enforcement, and that “an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.” The following year, in Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981), the Court held that a warrant for an individual’s arrest did not authorize an entry into the home of a third party not named in the arrest warrant. To protect third parties’ interests in the privacy of their homes, the Steagald Court held, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement mandated a magistrate’s determination of probable cause before police may enter those homes in order to search the premises for the individual named in the arrest warrant. In these two Pennsylvania cases, the Pennsylvania Court addressed circumstances in which a law enforcement officer sought to execute an arrest warrant inside a home: how would it be determined that the home was that of the intended arrestee, such that the Payton dictum could apply, rather than the home of a third party, where Steagald would apply? The Pennsylvania Court concluded the Fourth Amendment required that, police officers may enter the home of the subject of an arrest warrant to effectuate the arrest, but they must obtain a valid search warrant before entering the home of a third party. View "Commonwealth v. Romero, A., Aplt." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to determine whether a defendant, who was ineligible for statutory collateral review because he was sentenced to pay a fine without incarceration or probation, could obtain review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims presented in post-sentence motions filed with the trial court. The lower courts held that Appellant Edward Delgros could not obtain review because he failed to satisfy any of the exceptions to the Supreme Court’s general rule deferring such claims to collateral review under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted a new exception to the general deferral rule: requiring trial courts to examine ineffectiveness claims when the defendant is ineligible for PCRA review. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and remanded to the trial court for consideration of Appellant’s postsentence claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. View "Pennsylvania v. Delgros" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Appellant Steven Konyk entered into a negotiated plea agreement with federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania whereby he pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography. At the time, Megan’s Law III was in effect. Based on the offense to which Appellant pled guilty, that enactment required Appellant to register as a sex offender for ten years upon his release from prison. In the context of the plea agreement, Appellant understood and took into account this ten-year period when he pleaded guilty. Appellant was released from federal custody in March 2007 and began registering his address with PSP as required under Megan’s Law III. Since then, he satisfied all requirements imposed on him at sentencing and has complied with Megan’s Law. In 2012, before Appellant completed his ten-year registration period, Megan’s Law III was replaced by Megan’s Law IV, also referred to as the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). At that time, Megan’s Law III registrants became subject to SORNA’s registration requirements. Appellant filed in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction an amended Petition for Review (the “Petition”), seeking mandamus relief in the form of a directive to PSP to conform Appellant’s registration status to the requirements of Megan’s Law III rather than SORNA. He asserted that: as a result of his plea agreement, a contract was formed between himself and the Commonwealth; the contract incorporated the ten-year period reflected under Megan’s Law III; and retroactive application of SORNA’s 15-year period would breach the contract. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review thus centered on whether a contract-based cause of action existed in Appellant’s favor to enforce the ten-year period where subsequent state legislation increased the registration period to fifteen years and the Commonwealth was not a party to the plea agreement. The Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court: “We realize this puts individuals in Appellant’s circumstances in a difficult position, as they have entered into a plea agreement when Megan’s Law III’s registration periods were in effect, and they cannot secure relief on a contract-based claim from either the federal or state government. Still, such individuals should be aware that the federal government is not responsible for administering Megan’s Law in Pennsylvania and, as such, cannot validly agree to be obligated by a specific contractual provision relating to the length of the individual’s post-release sex-offender registration.” View "Konyk v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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In this discretionary appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on the permissible scope of a warrantless search of a cell phone by police and the confines of the harmless error doctrine. Specifically, the issue was whether powering on a cell phone to gather evidence, without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court held that accessing any information from a cell phone without a warrant contravened the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014). Furthermore, the Court held that the error of admitting the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the cell phone in this case was not harmless. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Fulton" on Justia Law

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At a jury trial, Appellee Angel Resto was convicted of, among other offenses, rape of a child. The issue his appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether a mandatory minimum sentencing provision that did not require proof of any aggravating fact violated the Sixth Amendment per Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013). At sentencing, the common pleas court implemented the mandatory minimum sentence for that offense. On appeal, Appellee challenged the constitutional validity of his sentence under Alleyne, which disapproved judicial fact-finding related to “facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences.” The Superior Court affirmed by way of a memorandum decision, finding that the intermediate court had “systematically been declaring unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that permit a trial court, rather than a jury, to make the critical factual findings for sentencing.” Assuming there were facts to be found under 18 Pa.C.S. 9718(a)(3), the panel explained that Section 9718(c), which directed sentencing judges to assess aggravating facts delineated in Section 9718(a), had been found to be unconstitutional and non-severable. The Commonwealth maintains its central position that there are no aggravating facts to be found under Section 9718(a)(3), and therefore, Alleyne is inapposite. The Supreme Court found that contrary to Appellee’s position, a conviction returned by a jury to which a mandatory minimum sentence directly attaches was not the same as an aggravating fact that increased a mandatory minimum sentence. The Court held Section 9718(a)(3) did not implicate Alleyne; and that 9718(a)(3), together with subsections (a)(1), (a)(2), (b), (c), (d) and (e) reflected a discrete series of crimes implicating mandatory minimum sentences coupled with the entire implementing scheme designed by the Pennsylvania Legislature. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for reinstatement of Appellee's judgment of sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Resto" on Justia Law

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In a January 22, 2018 order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that the Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011, 25 P.S. sec. 3596.101 et seq. (the “2011 Plan”), “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. This adjudication was based on the uncontradicted evidentiary record developed at the Commonwealth Court level, wherein Petitioners established that the 2011 Plan was a partisan gerrymander, “designed to dilute the votes of those who in prior elections voted for the party not in power in order to give the party in power a lasting electoral advantage.” As a result, the Supreme Court fashioned an appropriate remedial districting plan, based on the record developed with the Commonwealth Court, drawing heavily upon the submissions provided by the parties, intervenors and amici. The Remedial Plan will be implemented in preparation for the May 15, 2018 primary election. View "League of Women Voters of PA et al v Cmwlth et al" on Justia Law

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Petitioners alleged the Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act of 20112 (the “2011 Plan”) infringed "upon that most central of democratic rights – the right to vote." Specifically, they contended the 2011 Plan was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. After review of this matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that 2011 Plan violated Article I, Section 5 – the Free and Equal Elections Clause – of the Pennsylvania Constitution. View "League of Women Voters of PA v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Appellant James VanDivner appealed the Court of Common Pleas’ denial of his petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed this case following two remands to the PCRA court for supplemental opinions. In response to the PCRA court’s second supplemental opinion, Appellant requested, and was granted, permission to file a supplemental brief. Although also permitted to do so, the Commonwealth did not file a brief in response. Appellant was convicted in the death of his fiancée, Michelle Cable. Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty, contending he was intellectually disabled and, thus, imposition of the death penalty would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court conducted a four-day hearing, after which it determined that Appellant failed to establish that he was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court concluded Appellant was intellectually disabled, and, thus, ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Accordingly, appellant’s death sentence was vacated and judgment of sentence was modified to reflect the imposition of a life sentence on his first-degree murder conviction, subject to appellate review of his remaining guilt phase and sentencing claims. Moreover, as this matter was now a noncapital case, the Supreme Court transferred this appeal to the Superior Court for disposition of these remaining claims. View "Pennsylvania v. VanDivner" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth charged Appellee Alwasi Yong with a number of drug and firearms offenses including possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance (PWID), firearms not to be carried without a license, persons not to possess a firearm, and criminal conspiracy to commit PWID. Yong filed an omnibus pretrial motion in which he sought the suppression of physical evidence resulting from his seizure and arrest. Specifically, Yong argued his mere presence at the subject residence of the search warrant was insufficient to justify a protective pat-down frisk. Yong further argued police lacked probable cause to arrest him. The trial court held a suppression hearing at which an investigating officer testified to the three-day surveillance of the property and the execution of the search warrant. The Commonwealth did not introduce the search warrant into evidence. The specific issue presented in this case for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether an investigating officer’s knowledge of facts sufficient to create probable cause to arrest could be imputed to a second officer, who arrests the suspect, when the two officers are working as a team, but there was no evidence the investigating officer with probable cause directed the arresting officer to act. Under the version of the “collective knowledge” doctrine the Supreme Court adopted in this case, it concluded Yong’s arrest was constitutional. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Yong" on Justia Law