Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Defendant-appellant Jessica Rizor petitioned for post conviction relief, arguing her trial counsel provided inadequate advice with regard to a plea offer. According to Rizor, her trial counsel’s inadequate advice led her to proceed to a trial - where her life sentence was all but assured - in lieu of accepting a plea offer that would have resulted in a five and a half to thirty-year sentence. The Superior Court agreed and reversed the PCRA court order denying relief and remanded “for a new trial or entry of a plea.” The Commonwealth petitioned for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review, arguing that the PCRA court correctly denied relief and that the Superior Court’s decision rested on a faulty foundation which assumed that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance rather than presuming the opposite. The Commonwealth further believed the Superior Court improperly ignored the PCRA court’s credibility determinations. After review, the Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth, finding that the Superior Court erred in reversing the PCRA court order denying relief where Rizor failed to establish a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s alleged deficient advice, she would have accepted the plea deal. The Superior Court's judgment was vacated and the case remanded to address Rizor's remaining challenges. View "Pennsylvania v. Rizor" on Justia Law

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At approximately 5:30 p.m. on December 15, 2018, Alyssa Houston, Heather Lamb, and Lamb’s eight-year-old daughter exited Lamb’s house and departed in Lamb’s vehicle to go shopping. Houston noticed that Appellant Angelo Weeden was following directly behind Lamb’s vehicle in his Volkswagen Jetta, tailing them down a narrow street. When Lamb drove off of the main road to enter a residential area in the North Side neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh (the “City”), Appellant pulled around the driver’s side of her vehicle and blocked its forward movement. Appellant then exited his vehicle and approached the passenger side of Lamb’s car, prompting Houston, who was sitting in the passenger-side front seat, to lock the car door. As Appellant aggressively attempted to pull the passenger-side front door open, Lamb’s daughter yelled “gun,” and Lamb quickly placed her car in reverse, backed around Appellant’s vehicle, and began to drive away. Simultaneously, the occupants of Lamb’s vehicle heard four gunshots, two of which struck Lamb’s vehicle on the rear passenger side. Consequently, Lamb drove to the police station, and she and Houston reported the incident. The following day, Appellant was arrested, and the Commonwealth charged him with one count each of aggravated assault, person not to possess a firearm, carrying a firearm without a license, and propulsion of missiles into an occupied vehicle, and three counts of recklessly endangering another person. At trial, a veteran detective testified about the police department’s use of a gunfire detection program, “ShotSpotter.” The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether a printed summary created by a computerized system, “ShotSpotter,” which contemporaneously collected data regarding potential gunshots and transmitted the same to the subscribing police force, fell within the purview of the Confrontation Clause when used as evidence in the course of a criminal prosecution. The Court concluded that, under the circumstances presented, the admission of the document did not run afoul of Appellant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause. Accordingly, his conviction was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Weeden" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth appealed a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) court’s grant of relief to Appellee Michael Conforti, vacating his convictions for murder of the first degree, kidnapping, rape, criminal conspiracy to commit murder, criminal conspiracy to commit rape and criminal conspiracy to commit kidnapping and his resulting death sentence. Conforti’s convictions and sentence stem from the 1990 kidnapping, rape, and murder of Kathleen Harbison. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court’s determination that the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose another accused perpetrator, James Bellman’s psychological reports. Bellman testified against Conforti at Conforti's trial. Relevant here, immediately prior to a November 2021 PCRA hearing, the Commonwealth provided Conforti’s counsel with two mental health reports relating to Bellman from 1980. The reports were created as part of a criminal case Bellman had in Wayne County in 1979. Bellman was then evaluated by two psychiatrists, both of whom prepared written reports diagnosing Bellman as a sociopath. The PCRA court found that the reports “remained in the possession of the Commonwealth and only surfaced” during the PCRA hearing on November 5, 2021. As such, according to the PCRA court, none of the evidence of Bellman’s mental health issues was disclosed to Conforti’s defense counsel during trial. The PCRA court found that the information contained in the reports would have been extremely damaging to Bellman’s credibility. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court's determination the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose Bellman's psychological reports: "because of the importance of Bellman’s testimony, if those reports were properly disclosed there is a reasonable probability the result of Conforti’s trial would have been different, as it could have led the jury to discredit Bellman’s testimony and given more credit to Conforti’s testimony that he was not involved in Ms. Harbison’s murder. Conforti was prejudiced by the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure." View "Pennsylvania v. Conforti" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider whether the Superior Court erred in holding that a trial court lacked jurisdiction to correct a patent and obvious error in a sentencing order when the defendant’s request for correction was filed outside the time limitations of the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). In November 1994, Appellant Rodney McGee fatally assaulted Barry Williams. In 1996, Appellant entered into a negotiated guilty plea multiple accounts for acts against multiple people; court stated that Appellant’s aggregate sentence for all of the offenses was 32 1⁄2 to 65 years. On the same day that Appellant entered his plea and the trial court orally imposed the above sentence, the trial court issued a three-page typed document titled “Order” (“typed sentencing order”) that was inconsistent with what the court orally imposed on the record. Decades later, on June 3, 2020, Appellant filed a pro se PCRA petition, and counsel was appointed. On August 5, 2020, Appellant filed a “Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence” arguing that there was an obvious incompatibility between the two orders. Finding that the orders in question were “patently erroneous” and “contrary to common sense,” the trial court concluded that amendment of the orders was proper, as the time limits of the PCRA did not apply. The Commonwealth appealed the trial court’s decision to the Superior Court, asserting that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to entertain Appellant’s Motion because the underlying claim was cognizable under the PCRA, and had been filed outside the PCRA’s jurisdictional time constraints. In a unanimous memorandum opinion, the Superior Court reversed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed, finding no "patent and obvious error" in the trial court's sentencing orders. The Court did not reach the question of whether a trial court’s inherent authority to correct patent and obvious errors in the record is subject to the time limitations of the PCRA. View "Pennsylvania v. McGee" on Justia Law

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Appellant Kevin Jackson appealed a superior court judgment which vacated a pretrial order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (suppression court) and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The suppression court granted Jackson’s motion to suppress evidence recovered after a police officer detained Jackson via what was known as a Terry stop. While the suppression court concluded that the officer lacked the requisite reasonable suspicion to detain Jackson, the superior court reached the opposite conclusion. The superior court's judgment was affirmed by operation of law because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was evenly divided. The opinion in support of affirmance agreed with the superior court's conclusion that the police officer had reasonable suspicion to detain Jackson under the particular facts of this case. The opinion in support of reversal noted that it was "critical that courts and practitioners in this area of the law be cognizant of the burden that rests with the Commonwealth to justify a warrantless search or seizure when it seeks to do so based upon a 'high-crime area;' ... If we assume for the purpose of analysis that the Commonwealth established with empirical evidence that the area where Jackson was stopped constituted an area known for disproportionately regular gun violence, that evidence would not be relevant because it does not tend to make it more probable that Jackson was engaged in gun violence. Contrary to the Commonwealth’s argument, the Fourth Amendment requires the government to explain how reasonable suspicion relates to the individual’s conduct taking place in the location or area, for instance, by showing that his conduct was unique and, therefore, suspicious." View "Commonwealth v. Jackson, K., Aplt." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a class action challenge to the constitutionality of Act 12 of 2019 (“Act 12”),3 which, inter alia, enacted changes to the Pennsylvania Human Services Code. In particular, the Court had to determine whether the lawmaking which culminated in the passing of Act 12 satisfied the state Constitution's Article III requirements. The Court held that the process by which the General Assembly passed Act 12 satisfied both the “original purpose” and “single subject” mandates found in Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Thus, the Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court and found the statutory enactment to be constitutional. View "Weeks, et al. v. Dept. Health Serv." on Justia Law

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Appellant Jakeem Towles appealed the dismissal of his second petition for post conviction relief (PCRA). Towles was convicted for the 2010 homicide of Cornell Stewart, Jr. and the attempted homicide of John Wright following an altercation at a rap performance in Columbia, Pennsylvania. The Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County (PCRA court) concluded that Towles’ petition was untimely filed and, alternatively, without merit. Towles claimed that the Commonwealth had made threats and promises to a witness to induce him to testify against Towles at trial. In apparent recognition of the facial untimeliness of his second PCRA petition, Towles asserted that his petition met the so-called “governmental interference” and “newly discovered facts” timeliness exceptions in the Post Conviction Relief Act. Towles further claimed that he acted with due diligence in asserting his claim within the one-year time limit. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the PCRA court's finding that Towles' petition was untimely, and affirmed dismissal. View "Pennsylvania v. Towles" on Justia Law

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In April 2018, Florencia Mainetto (Florencia) recorded cellphone videos of her daughter (G.R.) and her niece (C.P.), both minors at the time, accusing Appellant Jonathan Rivera (Rivera) of sexual abuse. After sharing these videos with Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Higdon, Florencia and her sister, Katherin Mainetto (Katherin - C.P.’s mother), brought G.R. and C.P. to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Towanda (Advocacy Center) for formal forensic interviews. Trooper Higdon observed these interviews through a window. A nurse at the Advocacy Center then examined G.R. and C.P. but did not find any physical evidence of abuse. Later, two more minors, S.C. and S.M., made similar allegations against Rivera. Combined, the victims alleged that Rivera abused them between the years of 2009 and 2018. On June 26, 2018, Trooper Higdon filed a criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause against Rivera, alleging, inter alia, rape of a child. In this discretionary appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the issue presented involved harmless error in the context of post-arrest silence. At trial, the prosecutor case asked the arresting officer a series of questions about the defendant’s post-arrest behavior, particularly whether the defendant denied the charges against him. Over a defense objection, the officer told the jury, four separate times, that the defendant, upon his arrest, stood mute and denied none of the charges. The Superior Court ruled that this testimony was admitted in error but, relying on authorities discussing pre-arrest silence, found it harmless. The Supreme Court reiterated that different harmless error standards apply when evaluating testimonial references to a defendant’s post-arrest versus pre-arrest silence. "Oriented correctly, we conclude that the testimony in this case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, we must award the defendant a new trial." View "Pennsylvania v. Rivera" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Appellee Keith Rosario pleaded guilty to carrying a firearm without a license, delivering crack cocaine, and delivering marijuana. The trial court sentenced him to two and a half to five years’ imprisonment for the gun conviction, a consecutive term of five years’ probation for the crack cocaine offense, and one year of probation for the marijuana conviction to run concurrently with the five-year probation. In 2017, Rosario was paroled. Four months later while Rosario was still on parole for his gun conviction but before his probation sentences for his drug crimes began, he kidnapped a man and shot him in the back of the head. In connection with these new crimes, the Commonwealth charged him with attempted homicide and related offenses, and he was held for court. Based on the new charges against him, in 2018, the trial court revoked Rosario’s parole and probations in the present cases. Thereafter, in 2019, the trial court resentenced him to consecutive terms of the balance of his two and a half to five-year sentence for carrying a firearm without a license, five to ten years’ imprisonment for delivering crack cocaine, and five years’ probation for delivering marijuana. In 2020, however, the superior court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded for resentencing. On remand, the trial court imposed the same consecutive sentences for the gun and crack cocaine convictions but increased the sentence for delivering marijuana to a consecutive term of two to five years’ imprisonment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider the legality of the practice of anticipatory revocation of probation, which involved the cancellation of a probation sentence before it begins. The Court held the plain language of the statute governing probation revocation prohibited this practice. View "Pennsylvania v. Rosario" on Justia Law

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This case was not about probation; it was about parole. Purporting to rely on certain passages from Commonwealth v. Foster, 214 A.3d 1240 (Pa. 2019) and the statutes the Pennsylvania Supreme Court examined in that decision, the trial court held “a sentencing court may not delegate its statutorily pr[e]scribed duties” but must instead personally “communicate any conditions of probation or parole as a prerequisite to violating any such condition.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition for allowance of appeal to consider whether the trial court improperly expanded Foster in this regard. As the Supreme Court concluded it did, judgment was reversed in part. "[T]here is no dispute the parole conditions appellee violated were imposed by the county probation office rather than the state Parole Board. ... there was nothing improper about that, and the Superior Court erred in concluding otherwise. We therefore reverse its decision in that respect and remand for further proceedings." View "Pennsylvania v. Koger" on Justia Law