Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Criminal Law
Pennsylvania v. Cost
Appellant Harold Cost was arrested for various firearms offenses and filed a motion to suppress. At a hearing, the lead investigating officer initially explained that he was patrolling a high crime area in Philadelphia in an unmarked vehicle at approximately 9 p.m., when his partner observed Appellant and three other individuals in an alley. The officer suspected "there might be something going on," circled the block and stoped his vehicle in front of the alleyway to investigate. The officer did not activate the vehicle's emergency sirens or lights, however, he announced "police" when exiting the vehicle. The issue this case presented was whether the officer's retention of an individual's identification card was a seizure in terms of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the issue reduced to whether a reasonable person would feel free to ignore the police presence and proceed about his business while, amongst the other circumstances presented, the person is questioned by police as an officer continues to hold his identification and conducts a warrant check. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the suppression court that appellant was indeed seized. View "Pennsylvania v. Cost" on Justia Law
In Re: Grand Jury Investigation
Petitioner petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to challenge the public release of the investigating grand jury report of Grand Jury Investigation No. 18 (“Report”). Petitioner initially claimed the supervising judge of the investigating grand jury erred by ordering the public release of the Report because the Report was not statutorily authorized by the Investigating Grand Jury Act, 42 Pa.C.S. secs. 4541-4553. In the alternative, Petitioner contended the supervising judge erred by ordering the public release of the Report because the Act was unconstitutionally applied in this case. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Petitioner relief based on the statutory claim and, thus, did not reach the merits of the constitutional claim. The matter was remanded with instructions to seal the Report permanently. View "In Re: Grand Jury Investigation" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Starry
Appellant Michelle Starry was charged, inter alia, with a Pennsylvania Vehicle Code Section 3802(c) offense. She claimed the Commonwealth failed, prior to trial, to establish a prima facie case that her blood alcohol level was 0.16 percent or greater within two hours after driving. Appellant’s arrest occurred after she was involved in a single-car accident. The common pleas court conducted a hearing on the motion, and allowed the Commonwealth to supplement the preliminary hearing evidence. Applying Section 3802(g)(1), the court opined that the prosecution offered no good reason for failing to attempt to secure a more prompt blood test, other than stating that law enforcement policy in cases of serious accidents was to obtain a search warrant for the results of medical blood tests. "And the court suggested that there should have been some elevated concern about the two-hour window, given that the time of the accident was unknown." On the Commonwealth’s interlocutory appeal, the Superior Court reversed. The Supreme Court concurred with the Superior Court, finding the Commonwealth established probable cause that Appellant committed the Section 3802(c) offense and that a jury would be within its province to determine that her blood alcohol content was at least 0.16 percent within two hours after driving. View "Pennsylvania v. Starry" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Cost
Appellant Harold Cost was arrested for various firearms offenses and filed a motion to suppress. At an ensuing hearing, the lead investigating officer initially explained that he was patrolling a high crime area in Philadelphia in an unmarked vehicle at approximately 9 p.m., when his partner observed Appellant and three other individuals in an alley. The officer suspected "there might be something going on back there," and circled back around the block to stop in front of the alleyway. The officer did not activate his vehicle's sirens or lights, but did announce "police" when exiting the vehicle. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a seizure occurred during this police-citizen encounter, specifically the officer’s retention of appellant's identification card. The question reduced to whether a reasonable person would have felt free to ignore the police presence and proceed about his business while, amongst the other circumstances presented, the person was questioned by police as an officer continued to hold his identification and conduct a warrant check. The Court concluded, as did the suppression court, appellant was indeed seized. View "Pennsylvania v. Cost" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Parrish
Appellant Michael Parrish appealed a Monroe County Court of Common Pleas order denying his petition for relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). Appellant was sentenced to death for the 2009 double murder of his girlfriend, Victoria Adams and their 19-month-old son, Sidney Parrish. Following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's request for supplemental briefing, and after careful review, the Supreme Court held that Appellant’s Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal filed pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) was so vague as to render all of his claims waived for purposes of this appeal. Additionally, the Court held that appellate counsel’s filing of a "woefully deficient statement, one which precludes merits review of all appellate issues," constituted ineffective assistance of counsel per se, warranting reinstatement of Appellant’s right to file a Rule 1925(b) statement nunc pro tunc. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded to the PCRA court for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Parrish" on Justia Law
In the Interest of: N.B.-A.
At issue was whether the evidence presented against mother E.A. was sufficient to establish she was a perpetrator of child abuse under the Child Protective Services Law ("CPSL"). In 2016, Mother presented to a Philadelphia emergency room with her six year old daughter, N.B.-A. ("Child"). Mother reported that Child had been experiencing vaginal discharge for three days. In response to questions by hospital staff, Mother indicated that she had no concerns that Child may have been sexually abused. Lab testing of the vaginal swabs revealed that Child had chlamydia, a sexually-transmitted infection. Although Mother told hospital staff no males lived in the home, Child stated that she lived with Mother, Grandmother, and three adult male “uncles.” In actuality, the males were Mother’s husband and Mother’s two stepsons. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the evidence in this case was insufficient to establish Mother abused her child: "Applying the Section 6381(d) presumption to cases such as the one before us, where DHS presented no evidence that Mother was or should have been aware that Stepbrother posed a risk to Child, or that he or anyone else was abusing Child, would essentially allow a parent to be deemed a perpetrator of child abuse by omission in every case where a child is abused, placing the burden on the parent to prove that they had no reason to believe that their child was at risk." View "In the Interest of: N.B.-A." on Justia Law
In Re: 40th IGJ of: R.M.L.
In this appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s consideration was a question of whether excerpts from the mental health treatment reports of Petitioner, a Roman Catholic diocesan priest, which were obtained by the investigating grand jury in this matter via subpoena, could be included in “Report 1” of the 40th Investigating Grand Jury. The subpoenas were issued as part of the grand jury’s investigation into allegations of acts of sexual abuse committed by priests and other church employees in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. This appeal concerned the last of the 32 challenges made by individuals named in Report 1 who requested redaction of their personal and/or identifying information from that report. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded that, under the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”), this information was not subject to public disclosure. Therefore, the Court reversed the supervising judge of the grand jury’s decision allowing inclusion of these matters in Report 1. View "In Re: 40th IGJ of: R.M.L." on Justia Law
Sutton v. Dept. of Corr.
In February 2018, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections prison guard died after an inmate attacked him and kicked him in the head with Timberland boots. Later that month, the Department suspended commissary sales of such boots. Thereafter, prison officials issued a memorandum to all inmates stating that, effective immediately, Timberland and Rocky boots could no longer be purchased by prisoners. In this direct appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the Department of Corrections acted permissibly in mandating that certain types of boots possessed by inmates be surrendered or sent home. The appellant alleged he owned a pair of Timberland boots, previously purchased through the prison’s commissary for approximately $99.00, which was deducted from his inmate account. He averred that, per the Memorandum’s requirements, his boots, and those of approximately 50,000 other inmates, would effectively be confiscated without a refund. Appellant characterized the killing of the prison guard as an isolated incident to which the Department overreacted, describing the seizure of his boots as constitutionally “arbitrary and irrational.” The Commonwealth Court determined Appellant failed to allege that the Department had engaged in any conduct prohibited by law, such as deceptive representation or the breach of a warranty; and the Department and its employees are protected by sovereign immunity from claims based on alleged intentional torts. The Supreme Court concurred with the Commonwealth Court and affirmed its order. View "Sutton v. Dept. of Corr." on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Davis
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
Pennsylvania v. Smith
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