Articles Posted in Criminal Law

by
In April 2012, Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Kosko initiated a routine traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Appellant Jamal Knox. Appellant’s co-defendant, Rashee Beasley, was in the front passenger seat. While Officer Kosko was questioning Appellant, the latter sped away, ultimately crashing his vehicle. He and Beasley fled on foot, but were quickly apprehended and placed under arrest. The police found fifteen stamp bags containing heroin and a large sum of cash on Appellant’s person, as well as a loaded, stolen firearm on the driver’s-side floor of the vehicle. At the scene of the arrest, Appellant gave the police a false name. When Detective Daniel Zeltner, who was familiar with both Appellant and Beasley, arrived, he informed the officers of Appellant’s real name. Appellant and Beasley were charged with a number of offenses. While the charges were pending, Appellant and Beasley wrote and recorded a rap song entitled, “F--k the Police,” which was put on video with still photos of Appellant and Beasley displayed in a montage. In the photos, the two are looking into the camera and motioning as if firing weapons. The video was uploaded to YouTube by a third party, and the YouTube link was placed on a publicly-viewable Facebook page entitled “Beaz Mooga,” which the trial evidence strongly suggested belonged to Beasley. The song’s lyrics express hatred toward the Pittsburgh police. As well, they contain descriptions of killing police informants and police officers. In this latter regard, the lyrics referred to Officer Kosko and Detective Zeltner by name. In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permitted the imposition of criminal liability based on the publication of the music video containing threatening lyrics directed to named law enforcement officers. "Pennsylvania’s legislative body has made such a policy judgment by enacting statutes which prohibit the making of terroristic threats and the intimidation of witnesses, and for the reasons given Appellant cannot prevail on his claim that his convictions under those provisions offend the First Amendment." View "Pennsylvania v. Knox" on Justia Law

by
In this discretionary appeal, Javonn Clancy challenged the dismissal of the petition he filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). In that petition, Clancy alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to purportedly inflammatory statements made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. Specifically, the prosecutor characterized Clancy as a “dangerous man” and a “cold blooded killer.” After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that within the context of this case, the prosecutor’s statements constituted permissible "oratorical flair." Accordingly, the Court concluded Clancy’s claim of ineffectiveness of counsel lacked arguable merit. View "Pennsylvania v. Clancy" on Justia Law

by
Police stopped appellee Alexis Popielarcheck after observing her weaving onto and over road markers. A blood draw confirmed that she had in her system a combination of alprazolam, marijuana, cocaine, benzoylecognine, and hydrocodone. Popielarcheck plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of DUI, 75 Pa.C.S. 3802(d)(1)(i) (marijuana) and (d)(2) (various). The sentencing court modified her bail to require that she attend and complete recommended treatment at Greenbriar Treatment Center. Popielarcheck began treatment on June 23, 2015 and completed it on July 14, 2015. On September 1, 2015, the court conducted a sentencing hearing. Her discharge summary from Greenbriar, which was admitted into evidence without objection, reflected that her prognosis at the time of discharge was “poor” and that her success would depend upon her following through with aftercare recommendations. Popielarcheck, who had one prior DUI conviction in 2007, testified to relapsing “many times over.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider the interplay between two alternative sentencing schemes for persons convicted of a second offense for driving under the influence or alcohol or a controlled substance (“DUI”). In particular, the Court agreed to decide whether, when sentencing a repeat offender in need of further treatment to county intermediate punishment (“CIP”) under section 9763 of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa.C.S. 9763, the sentencing court must impose the statutory maximum sentence under section 3804(d) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. 3804(d). The Court concluded the Sentencing Code and the Vehicle Code establish independent alternative sentencing schemes, the sentencing court in this case was not required to impose the statutory maximum sentence when ordering Popielarcheck to serve a CIP sentence. Accordingly, the order of the Superior Court was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Popielarcheck" on Justia Law

by
The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016 when the Pennsylvania Attorney General initiated confidential proceedings to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse by individuals associated with six of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church, failure to make mandatory reports, acts endangering the welfare of children, and obstruction of justice by Church officials, community leaders, and/or public officials. Prior to the expiration of its term, the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury submitted a report of the above investigation to its supervising judge, identifying over three hundred “predator priests” by name and describe their conduct in terms of “what they did -- both the sex offenders and those who concealed them[,] . . . shin[ing] a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.” Before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court were numerous petitions for review challenging the public release of "Report 1." These individuals contended the grand jury’s findings were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence and were false or misleading. Additionally, it was their position that they were denied due process of law, and that the release of the findings to the public -- under the authority of a state-sanctioned, judicially approved grand jury -- would impair their reputations in violation of their fundamental constitutional rights. As the litigation has progressed, the Supreme Court found it necessary to take measures to protect the identities of the petitioner-appellants, at least until their constitutional challenges have been finally resolved. The Commonwealth was directed to prepare a redacted version of Report 1, removing specific and contextual references to any petitioner who had an appellate challenge pending before the Supreme Court, including cases not listed in this case's caption, in a fashion that is consistent with the letter and spirit of the Court's Opinion. View "In Re: Fortieth Statewide Investigating Grand Jury -" on Justia Law

by
The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme COurt's review centered on the meaning of "merely corroborative or cumulative evidence" in the context of whether a new trial is warranted based on after-discovered evidence. Appellant Eric Small was identified as the shooter who killed William Price outside a nightclub in Harrisburg in 2011. No one saw the shooting, but witnesses saw appellant walking away from the club with his right arm around Price moments before the fatal gunshot. The defense argued Pedro Espada, appellant's friend who was also outside the nightclub just before the shooting, was the real shooter. In addition to circumstantial evidence, the Commonwealth presented some direct evidence of appellant's guilt through the testimony of two witnesses to whom appellant confessed about killing Price: two prison informants with whom appellant shared a cell at the Dauphin County Prison. The Supreme Court found it necessary to answer two preliminary questions central to the after-discovered evidence issue in this case: (1) did one of the witness affidavit and new testimony amount to a recantation; and (2) if so, then did the Post-Conviction Relief court believe that recantation to be true? Where appropriate, the Supreme Court has remanded matters involving after-discovered evidence claims for the PCRA court to make credibility determinations on the recanting witness testimony. Finding that the PCRA court "failed to mention, let alone pass upon" the credibility of the recantation testimony in its opinion, the Supreme Court found it necessary to remand this case for that determination. The Superior COurt's order was vacated and the case was remanded to the PCRA court for limited further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Small" on Justia Law

by
In this appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on whether the trial evidence sufficed to support a conspiracy conviction, as well as derivative convictions for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possessing instruments of crime. The case started after a street fight into which additional persons entered. Richard Chambers' vehicle was blocking egress for Calvin Wilson. Wilson drove up on the curb and squeezed his vehicle past Chambers' Jeep without making contact with it. However, as he passed Chambers, “words were exchanged.” Wilson parked his car and approached Chambers, continuing to press Chambers as to why he and the Jeep were impeding access to the driveway. The two men walked toward each other as their verbal spat escalated. As Wilson got closer to the Jeep, he noticed at least two women inside. Finally, Wilson and Chambers met, and “fists were flying.” According to Wilson, Chambers threw the first punch and Wilson retaliated in kind to defend himself. Philadelphia police arrived to a "pile of people." Wilson was not charged, but Chambers was with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, possessing instruments of crime, simple assault and reckless endangerment. The Supreme Court held that, under the particular circumstances of this case, the Commonwealth did not meet its evidentiary burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Chambers was guilty of criminal conspiracy. Without a conspiracy, the evidence was similarly insufficient to prove Chambers guilty of conspiratorial liability, aggravated assault, and of possessing instruments of crime. Chambers' sentence was vacated, and the case remanded for resentencing on the remaining unchallenged convictions for terroristic threats, simple assault and reckless endangerment. View "Pennsylvania v. Chambers" on Justia Law

by
J.B., a juvenile, appealed the Superior Court’s order affirming the juvenile court's order adjudicating him delinquent. J.B. was charged for the first-degree murder and homicide of an unborn child in connection with the shooting death of his stepmother inside their family home on the morning of February 20, 2009. J.B. argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication of delinquency beyond a reasonable doubt for these offenses, and, alternatively, that the juvenile court’s adjudication was against the weight of the evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's careful review of the evidentiary record in this matter compelled its conclusion that the evidence introduced at his adjudicatory hearing was indeed insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish his delinquency for these offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, the Court reversed the Superior Court’s order which affirmed the juvenile court’s order of disposition for these offenses. View "In The Interest of J.B.; Appeal of: J.B." on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held previously that this Court held that a criminal defendant’s failure to appear at a trial scheduled within the time period provided by the speedy trial guarantee of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure constitutes a waiver of that defendant’s right to seek a remedy under that rule. In this case, the Court considered whether the "Steltz" waiver rule applied to a defendant who absented himself from an untimely trial—one that violated Rule 600 before the defendant failed to appear. The Superior Court determined that the Steltz rule applied without regard to the timeliness of the trial, and accordingly reversed the order of the Court of Common Pleas granting Darel Barbour relief under Rule 600. The Supreme Court concluded the Steltz rule was inapplicable. Consequently, the Court reversed the order of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Barbour" on Justia Law

by
On December 9, 2012, appellant/cross-appellee Darnell Brown attended a party after hiding a revolver in the wheel well of a nearby parked automobile. At the party, Brown began arguing with Cory Morton (the victim). Marcus Stokes (co-defendant) retrieved the revolver and handed it to Brown, who fired four shots into the victim, killing him. Dr. Marlon Osbourne of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office performed an autopsy of the victim and prepared a report of his findings. The report concluded the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds and the manner of death was homicide. At the time of trial, Dr. Osbourne was no longer employed by the Medical Examiner’s Office and he was not called as a witness, but his report of the victim’s autopsy was admitted into evidence. The Commonwealth called Dr. Albert Chu of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, who had not been present at the autopsy, to provide expert testimony based on portions of the autopsy report as well as autopsy photographs. The issue on appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on the autopsy report, specifically, whether an autopsy report was testimonial in nature, such that the report’s author must appear as a witness subject to cross-examination at a criminal trial for murder when the report is introduced as evidence substantiating the cause of the victim’s death. The Supreme Court held admission of the autopsy report without testimony from its author was error in this case, but the error was harmless, and therefore affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Brown" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition for review in this matter to address whether the deadly-weapon-used sentencing enhancement applied to a defendant who was convicted of aggravated assault based on a motor vehicle accident, where the defendant acted recklessly but did not specifically intend to injure the victim. On the evening in question, Appellee drove to several bars and consumed alcohol. Appellee and three others got into Appellee’s car, with Appellee driving. While en route to purchase drugs, Appellee approached an area where pedestrians were intermittently crossing the street in a lighted crosswalk equipped with flashing warning lights. Appellee did not slow down as his vehicle approached, striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Appellee fled the scene without getting out of his car to check on the victim. At the time of the incident, Appellee was intoxicated and distracted by his passengers. There was no suggestion Appellee meant to strike the victim or even that he saw him until immediately before the collision. Thus, it was undisputed that his conduct in injuring the victim was criminally reckless but not knowing or intentional. The Commonwealth argued that the DWUE enhancement, by its plain text, applied whenever the use of a vehicle causes serious injury or death regardless of the driver’s specific intent. In reading the DWUE as it applied to a motor vehicle, the Supreme Court ultimately concluded that criminally reckless use of a vehicle for its ordinary purpose of transportation does not trigger an enhanced sentence notwithstanding that such recklessness results in serious bodily injury. The Court reached this conclusion based on the operative language of the DWUE when read in its immediate context. View "Pennsylvania v. Smith" on Justia Law