Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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Appellant Kevin Bundy appealed pro se the deduction of funds from his prisoner account to satisfy financial obligations imposed as part of his criminal sentences. He contends, primarily, that he was constitutionally entitled to predeprivation notice and a hearing before such deductions began. Several of Appellant’s averments focused on the alleged impropriety of making deductions from gifts from family and friends. Others claim an entitlement to an ability-to-pay hearing, which, under prevailing Pennsylvania law as established by the Commonwealth Court, would only be implicated in relation to Act 84 deductions if there had been a “material change of circumstances” - such as a threat of additional confinement or increased conditions of supervision as a result of unpaid financial obligations. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Appellant’s first theory relating to gifted funds. Still, construing Appellant’s pro se averments with some leniency, the Court found he has alleged that, due to his indigence, the deductions have adversely affected his ability to litigate his PCRA petition. The Court found this allegation “resonant” because the change-in-circumstances prerequisite, as developed by the Commonwealth Court, was grounded on the premise that the prisoner can obtain meaningful merits review of the financial aspects of his sentence through direct appeal or post-conviction proceedings. If (as asserted) that opportunity was substantially encumbered by the Department of Corrections’ Act 84 deductions, an issue arises whether the “George/Ingram” rule should be extended to encompass such a circumstance. “[T]he law does not say with certainty that no relief is available. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court should not have sustained Appellees’ demurrer.” The order of the Commonwealth Court was reversed and the matter was remanded to that court for further proceedings. View "Bundy v. Wetzel et al" on Justia Law

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In two discretionary appeals consolidated for opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tackled an unsettled question in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. In Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment prohibited law enforcement officers from making a warrantless and nonconsensual entry into a residence for the purpose of conducting a routine felony arrest. In dictum expressed at the end of its opinion, the Payton Court stated that a warrant requirement for arrests in the home placed no undue burden on law enforcement, and that “an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.” The following year, in Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981), the Court held that a warrant for an individual’s arrest did not authorize an entry into the home of a third party not named in the arrest warrant. To protect third parties’ interests in the privacy of their homes, the Steagald Court held, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement mandated a magistrate’s determination of probable cause before police may enter those homes in order to search the premises for the individual named in the arrest warrant. In these two Pennsylvania cases, the Pennsylvania Court addressed circumstances in which a law enforcement officer sought to execute an arrest warrant inside a home: how would it be determined that the home was that of the intended arrestee, such that the Payton dictum could apply, rather than the home of a third party, where Steagald would apply? The Pennsylvania Court concluded the Fourth Amendment required that, police officers may enter the home of the subject of an arrest warrant to effectuate the arrest, but they must obtain a valid search warrant before entering the home of a third party. View "Commonwealth v. Romero, A., Aplt." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to determine whether a defendant, who was ineligible for statutory collateral review because he was sentenced to pay a fine without incarceration or probation, could obtain review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims presented in post-sentence motions filed with the trial court. The lower courts held that Appellant Edward Delgros could not obtain review because he failed to satisfy any of the exceptions to the Supreme Court’s general rule deferring such claims to collateral review under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted a new exception to the general deferral rule: requiring trial courts to examine ineffectiveness claims when the defendant is ineligible for PCRA review. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and remanded to the trial court for consideration of Appellant’s postsentence claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. View "Pennsylvania v. Delgros" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Appellant Steven Konyk entered into a negotiated plea agreement with federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania whereby he pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography. At the time, Megan’s Law III was in effect. Based on the offense to which Appellant pled guilty, that enactment required Appellant to register as a sex offender for ten years upon his release from prison. In the context of the plea agreement, Appellant understood and took into account this ten-year period when he pleaded guilty. Appellant was released from federal custody in March 2007 and began registering his address with PSP as required under Megan’s Law III. Since then, he satisfied all requirements imposed on him at sentencing and has complied with Megan’s Law. In 2012, before Appellant completed his ten-year registration period, Megan’s Law III was replaced by Megan’s Law IV, also referred to as the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). At that time, Megan’s Law III registrants became subject to SORNA’s registration requirements. Appellant filed in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction an amended Petition for Review (the “Petition”), seeking mandamus relief in the form of a directive to PSP to conform Appellant’s registration status to the requirements of Megan’s Law III rather than SORNA. He asserted that: as a result of his plea agreement, a contract was formed between himself and the Commonwealth; the contract incorporated the ten-year period reflected under Megan’s Law III; and retroactive application of SORNA’s 15-year period would breach the contract. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review thus centered on whether a contract-based cause of action existed in Appellant’s favor to enforce the ten-year period where subsequent state legislation increased the registration period to fifteen years and the Commonwealth was not a party to the plea agreement. The Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court: “We realize this puts individuals in Appellant’s circumstances in a difficult position, as they have entered into a plea agreement when Megan’s Law III’s registration periods were in effect, and they cannot secure relief on a contract-based claim from either the federal or state government. Still, such individuals should be aware that the federal government is not responsible for administering Megan’s Law in Pennsylvania and, as such, cannot validly agree to be obligated by a specific contractual provision relating to the length of the individual’s post-release sex-offender registration.” View "Konyk v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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In this discretionary appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on the permissible scope of a warrantless search of a cell phone by police and the confines of the harmless error doctrine. Specifically, the issue was whether powering on a cell phone to gather evidence, without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court held that accessing any information from a cell phone without a warrant contravened the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014). Furthermore, the Court held that the error of admitting the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the cell phone in this case was not harmless. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Fulton" on Justia Law

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At a jury trial, Appellee Angel Resto was convicted of, among other offenses, rape of a child. The issue his appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether a mandatory minimum sentencing provision that did not require proof of any aggravating fact violated the Sixth Amendment per Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013). At sentencing, the common pleas court implemented the mandatory minimum sentence for that offense. On appeal, Appellee challenged the constitutional validity of his sentence under Alleyne, which disapproved judicial fact-finding related to “facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences.” The Superior Court affirmed by way of a memorandum decision, finding that the intermediate court had “systematically been declaring unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that permit a trial court, rather than a jury, to make the critical factual findings for sentencing.” Assuming there were facts to be found under 18 Pa.C.S. 9718(a)(3), the panel explained that Section 9718(c), which directed sentencing judges to assess aggravating facts delineated in Section 9718(a), had been found to be unconstitutional and non-severable. The Commonwealth maintains its central position that there are no aggravating facts to be found under Section 9718(a)(3), and therefore, Alleyne is inapposite. The Supreme Court found that contrary to Appellee’s position, a conviction returned by a jury to which a mandatory minimum sentence directly attaches was not the same as an aggravating fact that increased a mandatory minimum sentence. The Court held Section 9718(a)(3) did not implicate Alleyne; and that 9718(a)(3), together with subsections (a)(1), (a)(2), (b), (c), (d) and (e) reflected a discrete series of crimes implicating mandatory minimum sentences coupled with the entire implementing scheme designed by the Pennsylvania Legislature. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for reinstatement of Appellee's judgment of sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Resto" on Justia Law

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Appellant James VanDivner appealed the Court of Common Pleas’ denial of his petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed this case following two remands to the PCRA court for supplemental opinions. In response to the PCRA court’s second supplemental opinion, Appellant requested, and was granted, permission to file a supplemental brief. Although also permitted to do so, the Commonwealth did not file a brief in response. Appellant was convicted in the death of his fiancée, Michelle Cable. Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty, contending he was intellectually disabled and, thus, imposition of the death penalty would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court conducted a four-day hearing, after which it determined that Appellant failed to establish that he was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court concluded Appellant was intellectually disabled, and, thus, ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Accordingly, appellant’s death sentence was vacated and judgment of sentence was modified to reflect the imposition of a life sentence on his first-degree murder conviction, subject to appellate review of his remaining guilt phase and sentencing claims. Moreover, as this matter was now a noncapital case, the Supreme Court transferred this appeal to the Superior Court for disposition of these remaining claims. View "Pennsylvania v. VanDivner" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth charged Appellee Alwasi Yong with a number of drug and firearms offenses including possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance (PWID), firearms not to be carried without a license, persons not to possess a firearm, and criminal conspiracy to commit PWID. Yong filed an omnibus pretrial motion in which he sought the suppression of physical evidence resulting from his seizure and arrest. Specifically, Yong argued his mere presence at the subject residence of the search warrant was insufficient to justify a protective pat-down frisk. Yong further argued police lacked probable cause to arrest him. The trial court held a suppression hearing at which an investigating officer testified to the three-day surveillance of the property and the execution of the search warrant. The Commonwealth did not introduce the search warrant into evidence. The specific issue presented in this case for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether an investigating officer’s knowledge of facts sufficient to create probable cause to arrest could be imputed to a second officer, who arrests the suspect, when the two officers are working as a team, but there was no evidence the investigating officer with probable cause directed the arresting officer to act. Under the version of the “collective knowledge” doctrine the Supreme Court adopted in this case, it concluded Yong’s arrest was constitutional. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Yong" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to assess what relief, if any, a criminal defendant is entitled to when he raises an illegal sentencing challenge premised on Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013) in a timely petition filed pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act when, at the time Alleyne was decided, the defendant’s judgment of sentence was not yet final. Appellee Phillip DiMatteo, entered into an open guilty plea to 56 counts of possession with intent to deliver (PWID) and one count each of criminal conspiracy and corrupt organizations. The charges stemmed from a drug operation in which DiMatteo and fourteen other individuals were involved in trafficking cocaine. Relevant to the issue, the Commonwealth sought imposition of the mandatory minimum sentence under 18 Pa.C.S. 7508 which set various mandatory minimum sentences for certain violations of The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, including PWID, predicated on the weight and classification of the controlled substance. The trial court imposed mandatory minimum sentences pursuant to Section 7508 on 55 counts of PWID, structuring its sentence, by ordering certain sentences to run concurrently and others consecutively, such that DiMatteo faced an aggregate sentence of fifteen to thirty years’ imprisonment. The sentencing court denied his motion for reconsideration. Five days after that denial, Alleyne was handed down, holding that any fact which, by law, increased the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime must be: (1) treated as an element of the offense, as opposed to a sentencing factor; (2) submitted to the jury; and (3) found beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that at the time DiMatteo entered into his open guilty plea, there was no “shared misapprehension” regarding the legality of the sentences that could be imposed, and there was no agreement or bargain between the Commonwealth and DiMatteo as to sentencing at all. The sentencing court did not impose its sentence under a misconception over what sentence it could impose under law. Alleyne rendered the mandatory minimum schemes with the defective judicial fact-finding procedure illegal. “This is not an occasion where a defendant and the Commonwealth bargained for a term of imprisonment, and the defendant reneged. . . . the remedy is a correction of the illegal sentence.” View "Pennsylvania v. Dimatteo" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Ernest Wholaver, Jr. appealed the dismissal of his petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). In July 2002, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with several sexual offenses for alleged conduct involving his two daughters, Victoria and Elizabeth. After the criminal charges were filed, Jean Wholaver (“Jean”), Elizabeth’s mother and Appellant’s wife, obtained a Protection From Abuse (“PFA”) order against Appellant on Elizabeth’s behalf. Among other things, the PFA order evicted Appellant from the family residence located in Middletown, Pennsylvania. As a result of this order, Appellant moved to Cambria County to live with his mother, father, and younger brother, Scott Wholaver (“Scott”). Shortly after midnight on December 24, 2002, Appellant and Scott drove from their home in Cambria County to Jean’s residence in Middletown. Scott waited in the vehicle while Appellant forcibly entered the home, where he shot and killed Jean, Victoria, and Elizabeth. Nine-month old Madison was relatively unharmed, but remained unattended until the bodies were discovered nearly 28 hours later. Police arrested Appellant and charged him with, inter alia, three counts of first-degree murder. He ultimately received the death penalty. Appellant raised a "multitude of issues" that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found none of which had merit. Therefore, the Court affirmed dismissal of his petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Wholaver" on Justia Law