Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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In 2009, the Pennsylvania General Assembly codified the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive Act (the “RRRI Act” or the “Act”), intended to encourage eligible offenders to complete Department of Corrections programs that are designed to reduce recidivism. Eligibility was conditioned, in relevant part, upon the absence of a “history of present or past violent behavior.” The Commonwealth filed a number of informations against Appellant Sean Cullen-Doyle, each charging him with burglary, conspiracy, and theft-related offenses. Appellant pled guilty to several counts of criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree felony burglary and one count of first-degree felony burglary. The court found Appellant ineligible for the RRRI program and sentenced him to three-to-six years’ imprisonment on the burglary conviction, followed by an aggregate fifteen-year term of probation on the conspiracy counts. In a post-sentence motion, Appellant asked the court to reconsider his eligibility for the program. The court denied the motion for reconsideration, referencing Appellant’s “prior first degree burglary conviction,” although it was unclear whether the court was referring to the present offense or another, earlier offense. On appeal, Appellant maintained he was never convicted of burglary on a prior occasion, and the Commonwealth admitted it could not find any indication of such a prior conviction. Therefore, the parties filed a joint motion to remand the matter to the common pleas court to determine whether that court’s ruling was based on inaccurate information concerning Appellant’s criminal record. The Superior Court acknowledged the confusion on this point but found the uncertainty immaterial and denied the motion, concluding that Appellant was ineligible for the RRRI program based solely on his present conviction for a crime of violence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the RRRI Act was a statute subject to the rule of lenity, thus any ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the word “history” (as was deemed an issue here) should have been resolved in favor of those seeking admission into the program. The Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Cullen-Doyle" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider the lawfulness of a warrantless blood draw conducted upon a motorist who, having been arrested for DUI, had then been rendered unconscious by medical personnel before a police officer provided “O’Connell” warnings and before the officer requested the motorist’s submission to a chemical test. The Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Superior Court all held that a blood draw conducted under these circumstances was impermissible, and that the results of the derivative blood test are accordingly inadmissible at trial. Because the seizure of appellee Darrell Myers’ blood violated Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute, 75 Pa.C.S. 1547, and because no other circumstances justified the failure to obtain a search warrant, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Myers" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Saleem Shabezz was a passenger in a vehicle that was seized unconstitutionally by police officers. Following the stop, the officers searched the vehicle, finding drugs and weapons in various locations and compartments, as well as on Shabezz’ person. The question this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether an illegal seizure entitled a passenger to suppression only if he could establish a reasonable expectation of privacy in the areas of the car where the evidence was found, or whether that evidence instead is barred outright as fruit of the poisonous tree. The Court held the contested evidence, tainted by the initial illegality, had to be suppressed, even absent a demonstrable expectation of privacy in the locations where the evidence was found. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court’s order, and remanded this case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Shabezz" on Justia Law

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The Superior Court held Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) registration provisions were not punishment, and therefore retroactive application to appellant Jose Muniz, who was convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s effective date but sentenced afterwards. The court held that sentencing did not violate either the federal or state ex post facto clauses. Appellant argued that applying SORNA retroactively to him was unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, holding: (1) SORNA’s registration provisions constituted punishment notwithstanding the General Assembly’s identification of the provisions as nonpunitive; (2) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violated the federal ex post facto clause; and (3) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violated the ex post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. View "Pennsylvania v. Muniz" on Justia Law

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Appellant Qu’eed Batts was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. The issue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, the Court concluded, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence was illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). Pursuant to its grant of allowance of appeal, the Court further concluded that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards were required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences were meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflected “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery. The Pennsylvania Court recognized a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation. View "Pennsylvania v. Batts" on Justia Law

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In a capital post-conviction appeal, Appellant Michael Pruitt raised six challenges, several of which fell within the category of the claims deemed to have been abandoned by the PCRA court. In 2003, Appellant forcibly entered the home of Greta Gougler, where he robbed, raped, and murdered her. Appellant was arrested, tried, and convicted for first -degree murder, rape, robbery, and other offenses, and a jury returned a death verdict in a capital sentencing proceeding. On direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. In 2009, Appellant brought these proceedings under the Post Conviction Relief Act (the "PCRA"). The post -conviction court conducted a series of evidentiary hearings, throughout which Appellant was represented by the members of the Federal Community Defender Office. Later, per Appellant's request, those attorneys were removed from the representation and new counsel was appointed in their place. In 2015, Appellant submitted a request to proceed pro se. The PCRA court scheduled a proceeding, at which Appellant agreed to continue to be represented by counsel but was deemed by the court to have "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily abandon[ed] any issues raised by prior PCRA counsel and/or [current counsel] that are not contained in [a] memorandum in support of the PCRA relief petition filed this date[.]" The PCRA court subsequently denied relief on the remaining claims for relief. This appeal followed. The Supreme Court concluded the record supported the PCRA court's determination that Appellant abandoned the six claims at issue here, and affirmed the court's subsequent order. View "Pennsylvania v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Appellant Leon Mills challenged a superior court decision to overturn a county court’s finding of a violation of Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 that he receive a prompt trial. The Rule requires that trial commence within 365 days from the date the criminal complaint is filed. Delays at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when it fails to exercise due diligence count in the 365-day tally. On June 6, 2011, the Commonwealth filed a complaint against Appellant charging him with a series of crimes arising out of a drive -by shooting, including attempted murder and aggravated assault. At a status meeting on March 20, 2012, however, per the Commonwealth's request, trial was continued. Trial was rescheduled to September 10, 2012. The outcome of the dismissal motion turned on whether or not 174 days was to be included or excluded in the 365 -day calculation. The common pleas court enforced the rule's main directive, and dismissed. Upon review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Appellant that time attributable to the normal progression of a case simply was not "delay" for purposes of Rule 600, and reinstated the dismissal order. View "Pennsylvania v. Mills" on Justia Law

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Appellee was charged with a single count of possession with intent to distribute, or possession, of a “designer drug,” a substance similar to a scheduled controlled substance, not the same. The trial court here determined experts have been unable to reach an agreement on a method for analyzing and determining the similarities between the chemical structures the controlled substance and its designer analogue, leading it to conclude this disagreement rendered the Pennsylvania designer drug statute unconstitutionally vague. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding the common pleas court did not account for the difference between the concepts of analogue and substantial similarity, the latter of which is more readily apprehensible to the lay citizen in the context of comparing chemical structures; nor did it recognize that, unlike the controlled-substance provision, the designer drug provision included a narrowing scienter specification. Moreover, the Court found in this case that there were “considerable similarities” as between the two molecules based on their two-dimensional diagrams. View "Pennsylvania v. Herman" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed appellant Marcel Johnson’s convictions and his sentence of death for the 2013 murder of Ebony Talley, her unborn child, and her four-year-old daughter, R.R. In this automatic direct appeal, Johnson raised nine issues for review. After thorough consideration of these issues, the Court affirmed his convictions and the imposition of the death sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Trial courts must identify the circumstances that make it reasonable to infer that the property owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity before allowing a civil in rem forfeiture of that property. The proper constitutional construct in determining whether an in rem forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment requires an initial determination regarding the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense (the instrumentality prong). If this threshold prong is satisfied, the next step of the analysis is a proportionality inquiry in which the value of the property sought to be forfeited is compared to the gravity of the underlying offense to determine whether the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. A 71-year-old grandmother who owned the house in which she lived, and owned a 1997 Chevrolet minivan, suffered from blood clots in her lungs, was hospitalized, and released, ordered to bed rest. Her adult son and two grandchildren also lived in the house. The son sold drugs from the house and the van, without his mother’s knowledge. The Commonwealth filed a petition for forfeiture of the house and minivan, with the trial court determining there was a nexus between the seized house and violations of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act). The trial court rejected the grandmother’s statutory innocent owner defense afforded by the Forfeiture Act because, after the police notified her of her son’s drug activities (through service of search warrants and personally informing her of the activities) she “refused to take any proactive measures or steps to demonstrate her lack of consent to this illegal activity. The Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court, concluding that the lower tribunal applied an erroneous standard for determining whether the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment, and that it failed to consider all relevant circumstances in rejecting the innocent owner defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Pennsylvania v. 1997 Chevrolet, etc." on Justia Law