Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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In this capital appeal, both Appellant Lavar Brown and the Commonwealth challenged the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County's order dismissing Brown’s petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act. The the parties requested the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order that Brown’s death sentence be vacated, that his case be remanded to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County for the limited purpose of resentencing Brown to life without parole, and that the case then be transferred to the Superior Court for merits disposition of Brown's guilt phase claims. The Supreme Court reviewed the PCRA court record and determined Brown was not entitled to relief, and the PCRA court correctly denied Brown's petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Brown" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to address the scope of consent given by a motorist to law enforcement for the search of his vehicle. After review of the circumstances of this case, the Court concluded that the consent given by Appellant Randy Valdivia to Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Jeremy Hoy and David Long to search his van did not extend to a canine search occurring approximately forty minutes later. "A reasonable person in Valdivia’s position would not have understood that he was consenting to such a search." The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Valdivia" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to resolve inconsistencies between the Superior Court’s decisions in Commonwealth v. Kemp, 961 A.2d 1247 (Pa. Super. 2008) and Commonwealth v. Nguyen, 116 A.3d 657 (Pa. Super. 2015), specifically with regard to whether information obtained by a police officer during a lawful initial traffic stop may be used to justify re-engagement with the driver after the police officer indicates the driver is free to go, such that consent to search given during that re-engagement is valid. The Supreme Court concluded, under the circumstances of this case, the consent given was valid and suppression of evidence was not warranted. View "In the Int. of: A.A." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether appellee Joshua Lukach, who was subject to a custodial interrogation, clearly and unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent in accordance with the rule articulated in Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010) and, if so, whether physical evidence collected as a result of his subsequent confession was properly suppressed. After review, the Supreme Court concluded appellee unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent and was then impermissibly induced into abandoning that right, rendering his confession coerced and involuntary. As such, both his confession and the physical evidence collected as a result of that confession were properly suppressed. View "Pennsylvania v. Lukach" on Justia Law

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In 1990, appellee Daniel Crispell was convicted for first-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to death. Crispell moved for post-conviction relief: he was denied relief on his guilt-phase claims, but granted a new penalty phase after determining that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence. While his PCRA petition was pending before the PCRA court, Crispell sought leave from the PCRA court to amend his PCRA petition to add a claim pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), premised upon evidence disclosed by the State during discovery. The PCRA court denied leave to amend, concluding on jurisdictional grounds that it lacked discretion to entertain the amendment. In reaching this conclusion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the PCRA court erred as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the order of the PCRA court to the extent that it denied leave to amend to add the new Brady claim. The Court remanded for reconsideration of Crispell’s request for leave to amend to add this claim. As to all other guilt phase claims, the Court affirmed the PCRA court’s denial of relief. With respect to the Commonwealth’s cross-appeal from the grant of a new penalty phase, the Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court’s order as its findings were supported by the record and free from legal error. View "Pennsylvania v. Crispell" on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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