Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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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

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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

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In this case, the Commonwealth filed a single notice of appeal from an order that disposed of four motions to suppress evidence filed by four criminal defendants (Appellees) at four different docket numbers. The Superior Court quashed the appeal, ruling that the Commonwealth was required to file four separate notices of appeal from the suppression order in connection with each of the Appellees’ docketed criminal cases. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, as did the the Superior Court, the suppression order at issue here could affect one or more of the Appellees differently from the rest, including, for example, the remaining evidence (if any) against each Appellee that may be used at trial (which, in turn, may implicate whether all or some of the Appellees should be tried in a single joint trial). "The legal issues relating to suppression, e.g., the standing of each defendant to challenge the search and seizure, may also differ from one Appellee to the next. Given the clarification provided by the amendment to the Official Note, the proper practice under Rule 341(a) is to file separate appeals from an order that resolves issues arising on more than one docket. The failure to do so requires the appellate court to quash the appeal." Thus, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s order. The Court also held, however, that prospectively, where a single order resolves issues arising on more than one docket, separate notices of appeal must be filed for each case. View "Pennsylvania v. Walker" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this case to resolve a dispute over an affidavit of probable cause used in support of a search warrant application. Specifically, the issue reduced to whether a statement contained in one paragraph, which when read in the context of the whole affidavit appeared to be an inadvertent error, rendered the affiant’s information stale, and therefore lacking in probable cause. After review of the affidavit at issue here, the Supreme Court concluded it did not; the search warrant was not based on stale information and was supported by probable cause. Therefore, the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated, and the superior court’s order was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Leed" on Justia 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