Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In the early morning hours of July 4, 2008, Appellant Wendell Jones' former girlfriend, Sonsiarae Watts, and her boyfriend, Dahl Palm, were shot to death inside Watts’ home. After a grand jury investigation, Appellant was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as well as burglary and a firearms offense. At his trial, Appellant testified he was at home alone watching television or sleeping on his couch when the crimes occurred. His counsel did not request an alibi instruction and the court did not give one. The jury convicted Appellant on all charges. The court imposed consecutive life sentences for the murders, a consecutive term of incarceration on the burglary charge, and no further penalty for the firearms violation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this post-conviction matter to consider whether Appellant was entitled to a new trial, because counsel failed to request that the jury receive an alibi instruction or object to the trial court’s failure to give one. After review, the Supreme Court held Appellant did not demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a reasonable probability the outcome of the proceeding would have been different had an alibi instruction been given to the jury. Thus, counsel’s failure to request such an instruction or to object to the lack of one did not undermine the Court's confidence in the jury’s verdicts. That being the case, Appellant was not entitled to a new trial. View "Pennsylvania v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Appellee Jerome King sought post-conviction relief, claiming, inter alia, that he was entitled to a new trial because his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. In connection with this petition, Appellee submitted to the PCRA court a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from privately interviewing his trial counsel, who allegedly refused to cooperate with Appellee’s attempt to prepare for PCRA litigation and, instead, was collaborating with the Commonwealth. The PCRA court entered an order granting the motion, and the Superior Court affirmed that order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether the lower courts correctly concluded that the Commonwealth should be prevented from privately interviewing a PCRA petitioner’s trial counsel under the circumstances presented in this matter. After review, the Supreme Court held that, given the circumstances relevant to this appeal, the PCRA court did not abuse its discretion by barring the Commonwealth from privately interviewing trial counsel. Consequently, it affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. King" on Justia Law

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In July 2016, Appellant Markease Cousins was arrested on an active bench warrant. A search incident to arrest revealed that Appellant had in his possession 1.75 grams of cocaine. As a result, Appellant was charged with, and convicted of, possession of a controlled substance. As the conviction constituted a violation of Appellant’s probation for a prior conviction for conspiracy to commit burglary, the trial court sentenced Appellant to a term of one to five years incarceration for violating his probation. With regard to Appellant’s new conviction for possession of a controlled substance, the trial court imposed an additional sentence of one to three years incarceration based on the pre-sentence report which indicated Appellant had previously been convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Specifically, the trial court applied the enhanced sentencing provision of 35 P.S. section 780-113(b). In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court’s application of the enhanced sentencing provision in 35 P.S. sections 780-101 et seq. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court’s decision was correct, and, thus, affirmed its order. View "Pennsylvania v. Cousins" on Justia Law

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In 2012, a firearm was stolen from appellee Richard Navarro. In November 2013, as a result of appellee’s alterations to a prescription for Percocet tablets, he pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery graded as first-degree misdemeanors and the court sentenced him to twenty-four months’ probation. Sometime thereafter, appellee learned the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP") had recovered his stolen firearm and he submitted an application for its return pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act (“UFA”). Although the UFA expressly precluded persons convicted of certain enumerated crimes from possessing firearms, forgery was not one of them, and no other precluding classifications existed under Pennsylvania law to bar appellee from firearm possession. However, PSP denied the application because a Pennsylvania Instant Check System (“PICS”) report indicated appellee had disqualifying convictions under federal law. Appellee challenged the denial. The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether, when denying the return of a firearm on the basis of a federal statute, specifically 18 U.S.C. 922(g), the Pennsylvania State Police had to establish the subject firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce. The Supreme Court answered "yes," and affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court remanding the matter for further proceedings. View "Navarro v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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Following his arrest on suspicion of DUI in May 2015, appellant Thomas Bell was transported to the Lycoming County DUI Center. There, a detective read the PennDOT DL-26 form to appellant and he refused to submit to a blood test. Appellant was subsequently charged with DUI — general impairment, and a summary traffic offense for failing to use required lighting. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss, arguing he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and thus evidence of his refusal should be suppressed and the DUI charge dismissed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether Section 1547(e) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. §1547(e), which expressly allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence at trial that a defendant charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) refused to submit to chemical testing, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Supreme Court concluded the evidentiary consequence authorized by Section 1547(e) was constitutional, and affirmed the order of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Bell" on Justia Law

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In late 2016, then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, pursuant to the Investigating Grand Jury Act, for an order to convene a multicounty investigating grand jury having statewide jurisdiction to investigate organized crime or public corruption or both. This appeal concerned a motion for return of property filed by several Lackawanna County governmental entities (“County”) relative to materials seized by the Office of Attorney General (“OAG”). The OAG seized the County’s property pursuant to search warrants issued by the Supervising Judge of the 41st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury. After the 41st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was empaneled and an investigation was ongoing, an OAG Special Agent and a Pennsylvania State Trooper applied to Judge Sarcione for four warrants to search and seize certain property belonging to the County. Approximately a year later, the County moved for return of property. Notably, the County filed its motion in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, which comprised the 45th Judicial District. In its motion, the County advanced a threefold argument to support its claim of entitlement to lawful possession of the seized materials: (1) the underlying search warrants were unconstitutionally general and overbroad; (2) the seizing of judicial and other governmental officials’ property infringed upon various privacy interests and legal privileges; and (3) the search warrants were invalid under Pa.R.Crim.P. 200. Without confirming or denying the existence of a grand jury investigation due to secrecy concerns, the OAG nevertheless challenged the lower court’s jurisdiction to hear the motion for return. The Supreme Court determined that the judge overseeing the Grand Jury, was empowered to issue search warrants in any judicial district, provided that the warrants related to an investigation of the 41st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury. Because there was no dispute the search and seizure warrants for the County’s property related to such an investigation, the supervising judge was authorized to issue them. Further, because the County’s motion for return of property challenged the validity of those search warrants, it related to the work of the 41st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury and had to be presented to the Supervising Judge, who had to adjudicate the motion or conclude it did not raise grand jury secrecy concerns. As the lower court reached the opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court vacated its order and remanded for further proceedings. View "In Re: Return of Seized Property of Lackawanna Cty" on Justia 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