Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In 2011, when she was sixteen years old, the victim, C.S., reported that she had been raped and otherwise sexually abused repeatedly by her stepfather, Appellee Kenneth Maconeghy, Jr. C.S. related that the assaults had occurred in the home that she shared with her mother, Appellee, and several siblings, during the summer months of 2005, when she was eleven years old. Appellee was arrested and charged with various sexual crimes, including rape by forcible compulsion and rape of a child. The question presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review concerned whether, in a criminal prosecution, a sexual abuse evaluator may testify to his opinion that a child was sexually assaulted, where there was no physical evidence of abuse, and the opinion was premised upon the expert’s apparent acceptance of the child’s reporting and description. The Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court, as well as the wide body of decisions from other jurisdictions, that expert testimony opining that a child has been sexually abused (which is predicated on witness accounts and not physical findings) is inadmissible. The Court’s decision was limited according to the terms of this opinion, i.e., the Court did not presently assess whether, or under what circumstances, such evidence may be appropriate in light of physical findings or as fair response on redirect examination or in rebuttal. View "Pennsylvania v. Maconeghy" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Commonwealth Court erred when it vacated the decision of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole regarding the allocation of pre-sentence confinement credit to which appellee Derek Smith was entitled. While on parole for a crime committed in Pennsylvania, appellee committed another crime in North Carolina. Appellee filed two pro se administrative appeals, arguing, inter alia, the Board should have awarded him credit on his state sentence for all the time he was detained. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the Commonwealth Court erred, and therefore remanded for recalculation of appellee’s maximum release date. View "Smith v. PA Board of Probation & Parole" on Justia Law

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In this direct appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the “net loss carryover” provision of the Pennsylvania Revenue Code for tax year 2007 (“NLC”), which restricted the amount of loss a corporation could carry over from prior years as a deduction against its 2007 taxable income to whichever is greater, 12.5% of the corporation’s 2007 taxable income or $3 million, violated Article 8, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (“the Uniformity Clause”). Nextel Communications, incorporated in Delaware, earned $45,053,282 in taxable income on its business activities in the Commonwealth. Under the NLC, Nextel was entitled to deduct from its 2007 taxable income the net losses it sustained in prior tax years in the amount of $3 million or 12.5% of its 2007 taxable income, whichever total was greater. In 2007, Nextel had a cumulative net loss dating from the tax year 1997 of $150,636,792. Because 12.5% of Nextel’s 2007 taxable income amounted to $5,631,660, and, hence, was greater than $3 million, Nextel claimed the 12.5% amount as a net loss deduction, thereby reducing its taxable income for 2007 to $39,421,622. Under the corporate net income tax rate of 9.9%, Nextel’s total tax liability to the Commonwealth on this adjusted income was $3,938,220, which Nextel paid to the Department. The Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s holding that the NLC, as applied to Nextel violated the Uniformity Clause. However, the Court also found that the portion of the NLC which created the violation, the $3 million flat deduction, could be severed from the remainder of the statute, while still enabling the statute to operate as the legislature intended. View "Nextel Communications v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the invocation of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), and Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257 (2016), satisfied the newly-recognized constitutional right exception to the time limit prescribed by the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Court held that neither “Johnson” nor “Welch” created a constitutional right that applied retroactively to Mark Spotz. In 1995, Spotz embarked upon a three-day homicide spree through York, Schuylkill, Cumberland, and Clearfield Counties. Spotz killed four people, one of whom was his own brother. In 1996, Spotz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in York, Schuylkill, and Cumberland Counties. In Clearfield County, Spotz was convicted of, inter alia, voluntary manslaughter for the killing of his brother, and received a lengthy prison sentence. The cases at issue here concerned Spotz’ death sentences in Cumberland and Schuylkill Counties. In each case, Spotz filed facially untimely petitions for collateral relief, in which he maintained that “Johnson” and “Welch” sufficed to satisfy the newly-recognized constitutional right exception. The Pennsylvania Court determined the timeliness exception did not apply, and affirmed the PCRA court’s conclusion that Spotz’ petitions were untimely, rendering Pennsylvania courts without jurisdiction to provide relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Spotz" on Justia Law

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Appellant-Petitioners in this case were school districts, individuals, and groups with an interest in the quality of public education in Pennsylvania. They contended that the General Assembly and other Respondents collectively failed to live up to the mandate to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” They further alleged the hybrid state-local approach to school financing resulted in untenable funding and resource disparities between wealthier and poorer school districts. They claim that the General Assembly’s failure legislatively to ameliorate those disparities to a greater extent than it does constitutes a violation of the equal protection of law guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Commonwealth Court, sitting in its original jurisdiction, dismissed both claims at the pleading stage, relying on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s prior dispositions of similar cases. Arguably, these prior decisions held that such challenges were political questions that the courts could not adjudicate without infringing upon the constitutional separation of powers. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, however, finding colorable Petitioners’ allegation that the General Assembly imposed a classification whereunder distribution of state funds results in widespread deprivations in economically disadvantaged districts of the resources necessary to attain a constitutionally adequate education. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court erred in determining that Petitioners’ equal protection claims are non-justiciable. “Whether Petitioners’ equal protection claims are viewed as intertwined with their Education Clause claims or assessed independently, those claims are not subject to judicial abstention under the political question doctrine. It remains for Petitioners to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any, to determine what standard of review the lower court must employ to evaluate their challenge. But Petitioners are entitled to the opportunity to do so.” View "William Penn Sch. Dist. et al, v. Dept of Educ." on Justia Law

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Timothy Jacoby was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him of the 2010 first-degree murder of Monica Schmeyer, burglary, tampering with physical evidence, and robbery. Direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic; the Court found no basis to vacate the penalty, and affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Jacoby" on Justia Law

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Matthew Snyder was killed in an automobile collision caused by Danielle Packer, who inhaled (or “huffed”) difluoroethane (“DFE”) immediately before and while operating her vehicle. This case presented an issue involving the distinctions between ordinary recklessness and malice in the context of death or serious bodily injury caused by one driving under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance. The Commonwealth charged Packer with a litany of offenses, including, inter alia, third-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, homicide by vehicle, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence (“DUI”), and aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI. In separate conversations immediately following the accident, Packer told emergency medical personnel and a state trooper that the crash occurred while she was leaning down to adjust the radio. Packer also volunteered that she had used dust remover to clean her air vents. None of the individuals who spoke with Packer at the scene of the collision observed any signs of intoxication. While speaking with police, Packer complained of pain in her chest. Thereafter, she was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Packer consented to the request by police for a blood test at the hospital. The blood draw occurred at 12:47 a.m., three hours after the accident. Subsequent testing of her blood revealed DFE at a concentration of 0.28 micrograms per milliliter. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the evidence presented at trial supported a finding that Packer acted with the requisite malice to support her convictions of third-degree murder and aggravated assault for the death and serious bodily injury she caused when she decided to drive a vehicle under the influence of DFE. View "Pennsylvania v. Packer" on Justia Law

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In 2013, the Commonwealth charged appellant Markeith Aikens with unlawful contact with a minor and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (IDSI), both graded as first-degree felonies, as well as corruption of minors, graded as a third-degree felony. This appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review an issue of proper grading for sentencing of a defendant’s conviction for unlawful contact with a minor when the grading was based on the offense for which the defendant contacted the minor (here, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (IDSI)), but where the jury ultimately acquitted the defendant of that substantive offense. The Court found that because the trial court instructed the jury that if it concluded the purpose of contacting the minor was to engage in IDSI, appellant would be guilty of unlawful contact with a minor, and the jury convicted appellant of that crime, the court properly graded the crime as a first-degree felony. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. Aikens" on Justia Law

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In 2009, the Pennsylvania General Assembly codified the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive Act (the “RRRI Act” or the “Act”), intended to encourage eligible offenders to complete Department of Corrections programs that are designed to reduce recidivism. Eligibility was conditioned, in relevant part, upon the absence of a “history of present or past violent behavior.” The Commonwealth filed a number of informations against Appellant Sean Cullen-Doyle, each charging him with burglary, conspiracy, and theft-related offenses. Appellant pled guilty to several counts of criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree felony burglary and one count of first-degree felony burglary. The court found Appellant ineligible for the RRRI program and sentenced him to three-to-six years’ imprisonment on the burglary conviction, followed by an aggregate fifteen-year term of probation on the conspiracy counts. In a post-sentence motion, Appellant asked the court to reconsider his eligibility for the program. The court denied the motion for reconsideration, referencing Appellant’s “prior first degree burglary conviction,” although it was unclear whether the court was referring to the present offense or another, earlier offense. On appeal, Appellant maintained he was never convicted of burglary on a prior occasion, and the Commonwealth admitted it could not find any indication of such a prior conviction. Therefore, the parties filed a joint motion to remand the matter to the common pleas court to determine whether that court’s ruling was based on inaccurate information concerning Appellant’s criminal record. The Superior Court acknowledged the confusion on this point but found the uncertainty immaterial and denied the motion, concluding that Appellant was ineligible for the RRRI program based solely on his present conviction for a crime of violence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the RRRI Act was a statute subject to the rule of lenity, thus any ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the word “history” (as was deemed an issue here) should have been resolved in favor of those seeking admission into the program. The Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Cullen-Doyle" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider the lawfulness of a warrantless blood draw conducted upon a motorist who, having been arrested for DUI, had then been rendered unconscious by medical personnel before a police officer provided “O’Connell” warnings and before the officer requested the motorist’s submission to a chemical test. The Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Superior Court all held that a blood draw conducted under these circumstances was impermissible, and that the results of the derivative blood test are accordingly inadmissible at trial. Because the seizure of appellee Darrell Myers’ blood violated Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute, 75 Pa.C.S. 1547, and because no other circumstances justified the failure to obtain a search warrant, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Myers" on Justia Law