Articles Posted in Criminal 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 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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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether, under Pennsylvania’s recidivist sentencing statute, 42 Pa.C.S. 9714, a second-strike offender could receive separate mandatory minimum sentences for a conspiracy conviction and a conviction for the offense underlying that conspiracy, when both offenses were separately listed as “crimes of violence” subject to the sentencing enhancement. Appellant Tyrice Griffin and a cohort, Juan Garcia, committed three armed robberies of restaurants/bars over the span of approximately one month beginning in October 2013. The Supreme Court found that robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery were crimes of violence as defined in subsection 9714(g). Because all six of Appellant’s robbery and conspiracy convictions constituted crimes of violence, both the trial court and Superior Court correctly determined that Appellant, as a second-strike offender, was to receive a sentencing enhancement for each conviction. View "Pennsylvania v. Griffin" on Justia Law

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In a published opinion, a divided en banc panel of the Superior Court concluded that Subsection 110(1)(ii) of Pennsylvania’s compulsory joinder statute, 18 Pa.C.S. 110(1)(ii), did not preclude the Philadelphia District Attorney (the “Commonwealth”) from prosecuting appellant Marc Perfetto on pending misdemeanor criminal charges that arose from the same criminal episode that resulted in Appellant also being charged with a summary traffic offense, despite the fact that the Commonwealth already had prosecuted Appellant for that summary traffic offense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal and held that Subsection 110(1)(ii) of the compulsory joinder statute barred the Commonwealth from further prosecuting Appellant on his pending charges. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Superior Court, reinstated the trial court's order, which granted Appellant's motion to dismiss his pending charges. View "Pennsylvania v. Perfetto" on Justia Law

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Appellant Eric Frein was sentenced to death after he was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, first-degree criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer, criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder and criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer, assault of a law enforcement officer in the first degree, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure, possessing instruments of crime, and recklessly endangering another person. These charges arose from the 2014 fatal shooting of one Blooming Grove (Pike County) state police corporal, and the injury of others when appellant opened fire upon the barracks and parking lot with a high-powered rifle. Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic; finding no reversible error, the Court affirmed the sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Frein" on Justia Law