Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a police officer’s initial observations of a defendant at the scene of a crime, followed by a warrantless search of a cellular telephone left at the scene, which lead to the discovery of defendant’s identity, tainted the officer’s subsequent in-court identification of the defendant. Appellant Angel Santiago was pulled over by police for having a heavily tinted windshield in violation of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code. Appellant seemed nervous and avoided eye contact with the officer, who asked for Appellant’s license, registration, and insurance information. Appellant replied that he had no license. When the officer directed Appellant to turn off the vehicle, Appellant did not comply, and began to reach into the center console. The officer immediately reached through the window and grabbed Appellant’s arm to prevent him from retrieving anything from the console. Appellant accelerated the car with half of the officer’s body still inside it. The officer repeatedly requested Appellant to pull over as Appellant sped away. The officer released his grip on the driver, causing the officer to be thrown away from the vehicle and onto the road, and Appellant’s vehicle ran over the officer's right foot. The officer later required medical treatment for his injuries. At no time during the encounter did the officer learn the driver’s name or identity. Police would later retrieve a cell ground from the location of the original traffic stop, where they were able to open it (without warrant) to try to determine the phone's owner. Only two contacts were in the phone: Appellant's and "My Babe." An NCIC database search of Appellant's name lead to a picture of Appellant from a recent prison release. This photograph was shown to the injured officer from the traffic stop, who affirmatively identified the individual whom he pulled over. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the identification made as a result of a warrantless search of the contents of a cell phone rendered such identification tainted and inadmissible. However, a pre-search identification of a defendant could be admissible, if independent of the taint. The officer's out-of-court identification was suppressible. View "Pennsylvania v. Santiago" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review in this case came from a Superior Court judgment that affirmed the trial court’s order denying a motion to suppress images of child pornography discovered by a computer repair shop employee after Appellant Jon Shaffer took his laptop to the commercial establishment for repair and consented to the replacement of the laptop’s hard drive. The Superior Court held that the trial court did not err in denying suppression because Appellant abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the computer files under the facts presented. The Supreme Court held that because the contraband images were discovered by a computer technician who was not acting as an agent of the government and because the police officer’s subsequent viewing of the contraband images did not exceed the scope of the computer technician’s search, the private search doctrine applies and Appellant’s constitutional privacy protections are not implicated. View "Pennsylvania v. Shaffer" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case was whether provisions of the Pennsylvania Election Code prohibiting the process by which two or more political organizations place the same candidate on the ballot in a general election for the same office. In the April 26, 2016 primary election, Christopher Rabb secured the Democratic nomination for Representative of the General Assembly’s 200th Legislative District. A few months later, the Working Families Party circulated papers to nominate Rabb as its candidate for the same race. The Supreme Court determined appellants failed to establish the challenged anti-fusion provisions of the Election Code clearly and plainly violated the equal protection clause of the federal or state constitutions, therefore, the order of the Commonwealth Court was affirmed. View "Working Families Party v. Com." on Justia Law

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The issues this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on: (1) whether the penalty imposed against HIKO Energy, LLC (HIKO) was so grossly disproportionate as to violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions; (2) whether the penalty impermissibly punished HIKO for litigating; and (3) whether the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) abused its discretion in imposing a penalty which was not supported by substantial evidence. The Supreme Court concluded HIKO waived its constitutional challenge to the civil penalty in this case, the penalty was not imposed as a punishment against HIKO for opting to litigate its case, and that the PUC’s conclusions in support of imposing the penalty were supported by substantial evidence. View "HIKO Energy, Aplt. v. PA PUC" on Justia Law

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At about 2:30 A.M. on June 28, 2014, via live surveillance camera footage of an Allentown convenience store, police officers saw appellant Michael Hicks inside the store with a firearm. It would later emerge appellant possessed a valid license to carry a concealed weapon. Officers were dispatched to the store, and before appellant could leave the parking lot, he was stopped. Hicks was not charged with any crime relating to the firearm, nor with any crime relating to the other patron, to whom Hicks “showed” the firearm. However, having discovered evidence of Hicks’ suspected intoxication and possession of marijuana, the police officers arrested Hicks and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”) -high rate of alcohol (second offense), DUI - general impairment (second offense), possession of a small amount of marijuana, and disorderly conduct, graded as a third-degree misdemeanor. Hicks filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking suppression of the evidence and a writ of habeas corpus, the latter motion requesting dismissal of the disorderly conduct charge due to the absence of any evidence establishing the elements of that crime. The trial court denied appellant’s motion; he was convicted on one count of DUI, acquitted of the remaining charges. The Superior Court affirmed judgment of sentence, rejecting the argument that the immediate and forcible nature of appellant’s seizure amounted to a custodial arrest rather than an investigative detention. As for the existence of reasonable suspicion justifying that investigative detention, the Superior Court did not conclude that the purported “brandishing” established reasonable suspicion that a violent crime might be in progress, or that someone might be in imminent danger. After review, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances (even in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the facts did not support a finding of reasonable, articulable suspicion that appellant was engaged in any kind of criminal activity the morning he was seized. Judgment of sentence was vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Hicks" on Justia Law

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In May 2010, Appellant Jakeem Towles shot and killed Cornell Stewart, Jr. outside a former fire hall in Columbia, Pennsylvania, which had been converted into a local “fun center.” The center was hosting rap music performances, including a set of songs performed by the victim and another individual, John Wright. At a jury trial, Appellant was found guilty of first-degree murder, and the jurors returned a death sentence at the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial. The judgment of sentence was sustained by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on direct appeal. Appellant sought post-conviction relief averring, inter alia, his trial counsel was ineffective for rendering allegedly unreasonable advice by: (1) encouraging Appellant to refrain from testifying at the guilt phase of his trial; and (2) for failing to call a forensic psychologist as a defense witness at the guilt phase to opine that Appellant’s intoxication and paranoid personality features played a substantial part in his actions. Finding no reversible error or constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Towles" on Justia Law

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In a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, appellant Tam Le challenged the death sentence he received following his conviction by jury on two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of conspiracy, and three counts each of kidnapping and robbery. The charges stemmed from the deaths of Vu “Kevin” Huynh and his younger brighter Viet Huynh. After a review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court concluded there was no reversible error such that appellant was entitled to relief, and affirmed his conviction and sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Le" on Justia Law

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A jury found that Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) Trooper Joseph Lombardo was acting outside the scope of his employment based on his use of force in an incident following a routine traffic stop. Accordingly, Trooper Lombardo was unable to benefit from the protections of sovereign immunity and judgment was entered against him and in favor of Shiretta Justice. The trial court affirmed, denying Trooper Lombardo’s post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”) and a new trial. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed, concluding that Trooper Lombardo’s conduct fell within the scope of his employment and remanded for the entry of JNOV in favor of Trooper Lombardo. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that because the jury’s determination was reasonably inferable from the facts, the Commonwealth Court erred in disturbing the verdict. The matter was remanded back to the Commonwealth Court to consider the trial court’s denial of Trooper Lombardo’s motion for a new trial. View "Justice v. Lombardo" on Justia Law

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An en banc panel of the Superior Court ruled that Appellant Molly Hlubin’s stop and arrest at a sobriety checkpoint in Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, conducted by a task force that included police officers from a number of other municipalities operating outside of their primary jurisdictions, was lawful. According to the Superior Court, formation of the task force did not require compliance with the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act (“ICA”), as the Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act (“MJPA”) contained exceptions to the general limitation on police activities outside of an officer’s primary jurisdiction. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed: the checkpoint at issue here equired compliance with the ICA, as none of the exceptions in the MPJA authorized the extraterritorial police activities performed here. View "Pennsylvania v. Hlubin" on Justia Law

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In a case brought in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, Petitioner Sands Bethworks Gaming, LLC, challenged a recent amendment to Pennsylvania gaming law in which casinos paid a supplemental assessment on slot-machine revenue, and the funds are then distributed primarily to underperforming slot-machine facilities to be used for marketing and capital development. Sands alleged that the amendment violated the Pennsylvania Constitution’s requirement of uniform taxation, its mandate that all enactments have a public purpose, and its rule against special legislation. Sands also claimed the scheme violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. The Supreme Court concluded the amendments were indeed unconstitutional, and the offending parts could be severed from the rest of the statute. Any assessment monies paid to the Commonwealth pursuant to the amended gaming law were ordered to be refunded. View "Sands Bethworks Gaming v. PA Dept of Revenue et al" on Justia Law