Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In 2014, agents of the Office of Attorney General (“OAG”), as part of their investigation of the electronic dissemination of child pornography, discovered that a computer at an identified Internet Protocol (IP) address registered with Comcast Cable Communications, repeatedly utilized a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, eMule, to share child pornography. The OAG applied for, received, and executed a search warrant at Appellant Joseph Davis’s apartment. After being Mirandized, Appellant informed agents that he lived alone, that he was the sole user of the computer, and that he used hardwired Internet services which were password protected, and, thus, not accessible by the public, such as through Wifi. The agents arrested Appellant for the eMule distributions and seized his computer. Appellant was asked for the password to this computer and Appellant refused to give it. Appellant was charged with two counts of disseminating child pornography, and two counts of criminal use of a communication facility. The Commonwealth filed with the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas a pre-trial motion to compel Appellant to divulge the password to his HP 700 computer. Appellant responded by invoking his right against self-incrimination. The trial court focused on the question of whether the encryption was testimonial in nature, and, denied the motion as a violation of Appellant’s Fifth Amendment rights. The Superior Court disagreed and reversed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that such compulsion was indeed violative of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution’s prohibition against self-incrimination. Thus, it reversed the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Davis" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Pennsylvania State Police troopers initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Appellant Shane Smith based on their observation that the license plate was not illuminated, a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code. The troopers requested Appellant’s license and registration, at which point either Appellant or his passenger opened the glovebox. When the glovebox was opened, the troopers observed a plastic vial containing marijuana. A subsequent search of the vehicle revealed a firearm, ammunition, and a clip under the driver’s seat. The manufacturer’s number on the firearm appeared to have been scratched, but was still legible. Appellant was arrested and charged with, inter alia, possession of a firearm with an altered manufacturer’s number. In this appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the possession of a firearm with a scratched, but still legible, manufacturer’s number was sufficient to sustain a conviction for possession of a firearm with an “altered” manufacturer’s number. The Court held that, in order to establish that a manufacturer’s number was “altered” for purposes of 18 Pa.C.S Section 6110.2, the Commonwealth must establish that the number was changed in a material way, such as by making it look like a different number, or that it was rendered illegible, in whole or in part, to the naked eye. As the original manufacturer’s number on Appellant’s firearm was, notwithstanding the scratch marks, still legible to the naked eye, it reversed the Superior Court, vacated Appellant’s conviction and judgment of sentence for violating Section 6110.2, and remanded the matter for resentencing. View "Pennsylvania v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Appellant Michael Mock was convicted for a 2006 DUI on March 27, 2007. More than ten years after committing this offense, but roughly nine years following his conviction, Appellant committed another DUI on July 10, 2016. He was later charged with DUI ?highest rate of alcohol; the Commonwealth deemed Appellant’s DUI a second offense and graded it as a misdemeanor of the first degree subject to increased penalties. Before proceeding to trial, Appellant filed a motion to quash the information, asserting that the Commonwealth improperly characterized the 2016 DUI as a second offense because his earlier offense did not constitute a prior offense under 75 Pa.C.S Section 3806. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this matter to address the relevant date for determining whether an earlier offense constitutes a prior offense. The Court agreed with the Superior Court that the ten-year lookback period ran from the occurrence date of the present offense to the conviction date of the earlier offense, rather than the occurrence date of the earlier offense. View "Pennsylvania v. Mock" on Justia Law

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In February 2015, Appellant Joshua Prince (“Prince”) submitted a Right to Know Law (RTKL) request to the City of Harrisburg seeking records related to the Protect Harrisburg Legal Defense Fund (the “Fund”), which the City created to defray legal costs associated with defending challenges to local firearms ordinances. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to decide whether a spreadsheet created by the City to show the receipt of funds from donors to the Fund constituted a financial record as defined in the RTKL. The Supreme Court found that although records that would disclose the identity of individual donors were generally exempted from disclosure under the RTKL, if those records could be characterized as financial records, public access was statutorily required. The Court concluded the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the donor spreadsheet was not a financial record and reversed. However, in light of its decision in Pennsylvania State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth, Department of Community and Economic Development, 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016) (“PSEA II”), the Court held that this case had to be remanded for the performance of a balancing test to determine whether any of the donors’ personal information may be protected from access under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. View "City of Harrisburg v. Prince" on Justia Law

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In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether either the common law or the First Amendment conferred a qualified right of access to the press and the public to inspect certain search warrant materials issued in connection with a grand jury investigation. A Pittsburgh television station was investigating allegations of improper sexual relationships between faculty and students at a local high school. The station sough access to a search warrant issued to search the school Administrative Building, and an order sealing the affidavit of probable cause supporting that search warrant. The Supreme Court determined no such right existed where, as here, the request was made while the grand jury’s investigation is ongoing. View "2014 Allegheny County IGJ Apl of: WPXI" on Justia Law

Posted in: Constitutional Law
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Jeffrey Olson entered an open guilty plea to one count of driving under the influence of alcohol, general impairment (“DUI”) in September 2015. This was Olson’s third DUI offense, and, at the time, he was subject to a sentence enhancement due to his refusal to submit to blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) testing. In December 2015, the trial court sentenced Olson to a term of eighteen months’ to five years’ imprisonment, applying a then-applicable mandatory minimum sentencing provision. Olson did not file a direct appeal, and his sentence became final on January 20, 2016. On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016), which held, inter alia, that a state may not “impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit” to a warrantless blood test. On August 17, 2016, Olson filed a timely, pro se petition for relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), challenging, amongst other things, the legality of his sentence in light of Birchfield. The PCRA court affirmed Olson's conviction and sentence, finding that because Olson's judgment of sentence was already final, he might be entitled to benefit from Birchfield if that decision were deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that because Birchfield did not set forth a “categorical constitutional guarantee” that placed criminal punishment for blood test refusal “altogether beyond the State’s power to impose” but rather, established a procedural requirement that, once satisfied, authorized that punishment, the Birchfield rule was not substantive. Accordingly, Birchfield did not apply retroactively on post-conviction collateral review. View "Pennsylvania v. Olson" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers conducted a traffic stop after observing Appellant Kirk Hays fail to use his right turn signal and then twice cross over the white fog lines on the roadway. Upon interaction with Appellant, a Trooper smelled alcohol and suspected Appellant was driving under the influence of alcohol. Following two failed field sobriety tests, Appellant was taken into custody and transported to a DUI Center, whereupon Appellant acquiesced to a blood draw; testing revealed his BAC to be 0.192. Appellant was charged with three summary offenses and two counts of DUI. Appellant moved to suppress all evidence resulting from the traffic stop, arguing the Trooper lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle. The motion was denied, trial was held and Appellant was ultimately convicted and sentenced only to Count 1, DUI. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion on September 1, 2016, alleging he was entitled to a new trial because of Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016). The Commonwealth filed an answer, asserting Appellant waived any challenge to the voluntariness of his consent by failing to raise the issue in his omnibus pre-trial motion. The Commonwealth conceded Appellant’s case was not yet final when Birchfield was decided, and that Appellant first raised his Birchfield issue in his timely filed post-sentence motion. However, the Commonwealth argued that retroactivity only applied in cases where the question was properly preserved at all stages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this matter to determine whether Birchfield applied to all cases not yet final when the decision was rendered, and determined Appellant was not entitled to retroactive application of Birchfield based on his failure to preserve the issue below. View "Pennsylvania v. Hays" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this matter was whether a criminal defendant’s conviction of carrying a concealed firearm without a license could be sustained on a constructive-possession theory where the gun was physically held and used by another person during the alleged crime. Appellant Alanah Peters asked the victim, Jesse Hicks, for money to help her father evade eviction. At first Hicks promised to give the father money. He and appellant had an argument, and Hicks rescinded his offer. Two men and appellant arrived at Hicks’ apartment, one holding a handgun. The men forced their way into Hicks’ bedroom. Unable to find any cash, the unarmed man told the other to shoot. The shot pierced Hicks’ jaw, tongue, and shoulder, and dislodged some of his teeth. The assailants kicked Hicks in the face and left the room. Appellant, who had remained outside the room, suggested they check Hicks’ pockets. The men re-entered the room and, as Hicks lay bleeding on the floor, removed his pants, took his $700, and fled. The men were never identified or apprehended. Appellant was charged with numerous offenses including attempted murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and conspiracy. Most relevant to this appeal, she was charged with carrying a concealed firearm without a license. Under the facts of this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined constructive possession could not be used to support appellant’s conviction for carrying a concealed firearm without a license. View "Pennsylvania v. Peters" on Justia Law

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Appellant Scott Bishop was a parolee. During a home visit in March 2015, a parole agent performed a drug test, which indicated that methamphetamine was present in Appellant’s urine. Appellant was handcuffed and asked whether the agent would find anything in the residence that would violate parole conditions. Appellant then admitted that he had a firearm in a hallway closet. The agent proceeded to the closet, where he found a revolver, marijuana, electronic scales, and packaging materials. Appellant argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should interpret the provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution conferring upon individuals a right against self-incrimination to provide greater protection than the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Commonwealth countered that this claim was not properly preserved. In terms of efforts by criminal defendants to raise claims for departure from federal constitutional jurisprudence on independent state grounds, the the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth was correct that the precedent of the Pennsylvania Court required that some analysis explaining the grounds for departure was required. Because Appellant did not distinguish between the federal Fifth Amendment and Pennsylvania Constitution Article I, Section 9 before the suppression court, his claim favoring departure was waived. Furthermore, Appellant also waived the claim for additional protection under the state constitution in the Superior Court, since he did not develop any supportive reasoning before that court either. View "Pennsylvania v. Bishop" on Justia Law

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Appellant Dynan Turpin was arrested and charged with, inter alia, three counts of possession of a controlled substance, and one count each of conspiracy to commit possession with the intent to deliver and receiving stolen property. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a search warrant for an entire multi-bedroom residence shared by appellant and his roommate, Benjamin Irvin, was constitutionally permissible under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution even though the warrant was premised solely on the activity of Irvin. After review, the Supreme Court concluded police had probable cause to search the entire residence and therefore the warrant was constitutionally permissible. View "Pennsylvania v. Turpin" on Justia Law