Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this matter to consider whether Appellant Victoria Livingstone, who was in a stopped vehicle on the side of the road, was subjected to an investigatory detention without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when a police officer, checking to see if she needed help, pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle. The Court determined Appellant was subjected to an illegal investigatory detention based on these facts. Furthermore, although the Court recognized the public servant “exception” to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine, which in certain circumstances will permit a warrantless seizure, it concluded the doctrine did not justify the detention of Appellant under the facts of this case. Thus, the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court's denial of Appellant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of her illegal investigatory detention, and the Superior Court's decision was reversed. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Livingstone" on Justia Law

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This discretionary appeal relates to the authority of parole agents to detain and frisk a non-parolee visitor while performing a routine check at a parolee’s home. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also granted review to address whether reasonable suspicion existed to justify the seizure and frisk in this instance. In 2013, Pennsylvania Parole Agents Michael Welsh and Gregory Bruner conducted a routine home visit to the residence of parolee Gary Waters. Agent Welsh characterized the neighborhood as a “high crime” area. Waters invited the agents into the home, where they immediately recognized the strong odor of marijuana, which increased as they continued through the home. While Agent Welsh dealt with Waters, Agent Bruner maintained visual contact with Appellant Darrin Mathis. Agent Bruner alerted Agent Welsh that Appellant “seemed pretty nervous.” When Appellant began walking to another room, he continued to hold a jacket to his side in a “protecting type of grip” while also turning away from the agent, which revealed a bulge in the jacket. These observations caused Agent Welsh to have concerns regarding the agents’ safety. He then asked Appellant if he could pat him down for safety reasons. Appellant refused, at which time Agent Welsh again noticed the bulge, described as the size of a cigarette pack or wallet, which further raised Agent Welsh’s suspicions that Appellant may be secreting contraband or a weapon. Agent Welsh reached out to the bulge and felt what he believed was the handle of a firearm, seized the jacket and pulled it forcefully from Appellant, throwing it to the ground. Appellant was then handcuffed and patted down. Thereafter, Agent Welsh noticed a bag of marijuana on the floor between Appellant’s feet, while Agent Bruner recovered a handgun from the jacket. A local police officer reported to the residence, and Appellant admitted to ownership of the weapon and drugs. A criminal history check revealed that Appellant was prohibited from possessing a firearm. The officer arrested Appellant and charged him with possessory offenses of a prohibited firearm, a small amount of marijuana, and drug paraphernalia. Appellant filed a pretrial motion to suppress the physical evidence and his statement to police, asserting that parole agents have no statutory authority over non- offenders and that Agent Welsh did not have reasonable suspicion to detain and frisk him. The trial court denied Appellant’s motion to suppress. Following a stipulated bench trial, Appellant was convicted of all charges and sentenced to thirty-two to sixty-four months’ imprisonment. He appealed to the Superior Court. The Supreme Court determined that in light of the suspicion of criminality, the officer’s actions did not violate Appellant’s constitutional rights and affirmed his conviction. View "Pennsylvania v. Mathis" on Justia Law

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The issue raised in this discretionary appeal was whether the Commonwealth could punish an individual for conduct which was made a crime by an amended statute where the original version of the statute has been declared unconstitutional in its entirety. In 1995, Appellant Joseph Derhammer pled guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (“IDSI”), and was sentenced to five-to-ten years’ incarceration. Pursuant to Megan’s Law, he was required, upon release from prison, to register his address with the Pennsylvania State Police. He was also obligated to notify the state police of all subsequent address changes for the remainder of his life. Any failure to provide timely notification as required by law would constitute a criminal offense. While subject to these obligations, Appellant moved to a new residence on April 1, 2009, and reported his new address to the state police on April 6. Based on having waited five days, Appellant was charged by information with the second-degree felony of failing to register as a sex offender under Section 4915(a)(1) of the Crimes Code, which was part of Megan’s Law III. When Megan’s Law III was originally enacted in 2004, offenders were given ten days to report an address change to the state police. However, a 2006 legislative change reduced that period to 48 hours. Thus, the 48-hour period was in effect when Appellant relocated on April 1, 2009. In 2011, Appellant was convicted at a bench trial of failing to timely register his new address and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. After his direct appeal rights were restored nunc pro tunc, the Superior Court awarded a new trial due to the trial court’s failure to conduct a jury-waiver colloquy. In the interim, Section 4915 of the Crimes Code expired and was replaced with Section 4915.1, as part of Megan’s Law IV – commonly known as the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). SORNA went into effect on December 20, 2012, and provided for the expiration of Megan’s Law III at that time. The following year, this Court announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Neiman, 624 Pa. 53, 84 A.3d 603 (2013), finding that Act 2004-152 amounted to omnibus legislation in violation of the Constitution’s single-subject rule. Thus, Neiman invalidated Act 2004-152 – which included Megan’s Law III – in its entirety. The Supreme Court held that, at the time of Appellant’s second trial and sentencing, the Commonwealth lacked authority to prosecute him for having waited until April 6, 2009, to report his April 1, 2009, address change. Therefore, the trial court should have granted his motion to dismiss. View "Pennsylvania v. Derhammer" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, we review the trial court’s determination that 75 Pa.C.S. 1611(e) violated Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to due process and the federal and Pennsylvania constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2013, a Pennsylvania State Police informant asked Appellee Lawrence Shoul, who held a CDL, to retrieve marijuana from one of Appellee’s co-workers and deliver it to the informant. Appellee obliged, using a motor vehicle to do so, whereupon he was arrested and charged with two counts of felony manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, and ultimately convicted of the same. Thereafter, PennDOT notified Appellee that, pursuant to Section 1611(e), he was disqualified from holding a CDL for life. Appellee appealed his disqualification to the trial court, which found that Section 1611(e) violated Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to substantive due process and the federal and Pennsylvania constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. Preliminarily, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that Section 1611(e) was not rationally related, at least as a matter of Pennsylvania constitutional jurisprudence, to the protection of highway safety. Furthermore, the Court found merit in the trial court’s view that Section 1611(e)’s severity, relative to Section 1611’s other sanctions for conduct plainly more dangerous to highway safety, undermined the notion that it was rationally related to that purpose. Furthermore, the Court agreed that Section 1611(e)’s imposition of a lifetime disqualification undermined its rational relationship to promoting highway safety. However, the Court agreed with PennDOT that the trial court overlooked the fact that Section 1611(e) served the legitimate governmental purpose of deterring drug activity. The Supreme Court: reversed the trial court’s order insofar as it held that Section 1611(e) violated the Pennsylvania constitutional right to substantive due process; vacated the trial court’s order insofar as it held that Section 1611(e) violated the federal and state constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment; and remanded this case back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Shoul v. Bureau of Driver Licensing" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the petition for allowance of appeal filed by Daniel Loughnane to determine whether the Superior Court erred by holding that the federal automobile exception found in Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014), permitted the seizure of Loughnane’s truck while it was parked in his residential driveway. In 2012, a large, dark-colored truck with a loud exhaust system was involved in a hit-and-run accident which killed nineteen-year-old Rebecca McCallick while she lay in the roadway on Hazle Street in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This happened in front of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, John Schenck, III, who observed the accident from their second story window. Schenck provided several statements to members of the Wilkes-Barre Police Department, describing the truck in question and identifying a vehicle in a photograph shown to him by police that he believed “looked like” the truck that struck his girlfriend. Schenck’s father came across a truck parked in a residential driveway on Liberty Street in Ashley, that he believed fit Schenck’s description. Schenck’s father took a photograph of the truck and showed it to Schenck, who identified it as the vehicle involved in the accident. That afternoon, police went to the address where Schenck’s father had observed the truck. The detective learned that Loughnane owned the residence and the truck parked in the driveway. Unable to reach Loughnane at home, the detective went to various locations in an attempt to find him or to obtain contact information for him ‒ including Loughnane’s place of business, his neighbors’ homes, and the home of Loughnane’s parents ‒ all without success. During this time, the truck was left unattended. The Supreme Court concluded after a review of the facts of this case that "Gary" does not operate to permit the warrantless seizure of a vehicle parked on a defendant’s residential driveway. The Court therefore vacated the Superior Court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Loughnane" on Justia Law

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In 2002, David Chmiel was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of three elderly siblings. At Chmiel’s 2002 trial, the Commonwealth relied upon the testimony of a state police forensic examiner, who opined that hair found at the crime scene was microscopically similar to Chmiel’s hair. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) issued a press release admitting, for the first time, that testimony by FBI analysts regarding microscopic hair analysis in criminal trials was erroneous in the vast majority of cases. Furthermore, the FBI admitted that it had, over the course of twenty-five years, conducted multiple training courses for state and local forensic examiners throughout the country that incorporated some of the same flawed language that the FBI examiners had used in lab reports and trial testimony. Chmiel filed a petition pursuant to the PCRA, asserting that his conviction and death sentence rested upon unreliable microscopic hair comparison evidence. Recognizing that his petition facially was untimely, Chmiel asserted that the FBI press release constituted a newly discovered fact that satisfied the timeliness exception set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. 9545(b)(1)(ii). The PCRA court rejected Chmiel’s reliance upon the FBI press release as a newly discovered fact, and dismissed the petition as untimely. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found two newly discovered facts upon which Chmiel’s underlying claim is predicated, both of which were made public for the first time in a Washington Post article and the FBI press release. With these newly discovered, material facts, the FBI press release indicated that a testifying expert's trial testimony may have exceeded the limits of science and overstated to the jury the significance of the microscopic hair analysis. The Court concluded the FBI’s repudiation and disclosure about its role in training state and local forensic examiners satisfied Section 9545(b)(1)(ii), and entitled Chmiel to a merits determination of his underlying claim. View "Pennsylvania v. Chmiel" on Justia Law

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In 2011, when she was sixteen years old, the victim, C.S., reported that she had been raped and otherwise sexually abused repeatedly by her stepfather, Appellee Kenneth Maconeghy, Jr. C.S. related that the assaults had occurred in the home that she shared with her mother, Appellee, and several siblings, during the summer months of 2005, when she was eleven years old. Appellee was arrested and charged with various sexual crimes, including rape by forcible compulsion and rape of a child. The question presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review concerned whether, in a criminal prosecution, a sexual abuse evaluator may testify to his opinion that a child was sexually assaulted, where there was no physical evidence of abuse, and the opinion was premised upon the expert’s apparent acceptance of the child’s reporting and description. The Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court, as well as the wide body of decisions from other jurisdictions, that expert testimony opining that a child has been sexually abused (which is predicated on witness accounts and not physical findings) is inadmissible. The Court’s decision was limited according to the terms of this opinion, i.e., the Court did not presently assess whether, or under what circumstances, such evidence may be appropriate in light of physical findings or as fair response on redirect examination or in rebuttal. View "Pennsylvania v. Maconeghy" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Commonwealth Court erred when it vacated the decision of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole regarding the allocation of pre-sentence confinement credit to which appellee Derek Smith was entitled. While on parole for a crime committed in Pennsylvania, appellee committed another crime in North Carolina. Appellee filed two pro se administrative appeals, arguing, inter alia, the Board should have awarded him credit on his state sentence for all the time he was detained. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the Commonwealth Court erred, and therefore remanded for recalculation of appellee’s maximum release date. View "Smith v. PA Board of Probation & Parole" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the invocation of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), and Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257 (2016), satisfied the newly-recognized constitutional right exception to the time limit prescribed by the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Court held that neither “Johnson” nor “Welch” created a constitutional right that applied retroactively to Mark Spotz. In 1995, Spotz embarked upon a three-day homicide spree through York, Schuylkill, Cumberland, and Clearfield Counties. Spotz killed four people, one of whom was his own brother. In 1996, Spotz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in York, Schuylkill, and Cumberland Counties. In Clearfield County, Spotz was convicted of, inter alia, voluntary manslaughter for the killing of his brother, and received a lengthy prison sentence. The cases at issue here concerned Spotz’ death sentences in Cumberland and Schuylkill Counties. In each case, Spotz filed facially untimely petitions for collateral relief, in which he maintained that “Johnson” and “Welch” sufficed to satisfy the newly-recognized constitutional right exception. The Pennsylvania Court determined the timeliness exception did not apply, and affirmed the PCRA court’s conclusion that Spotz’ petitions were untimely, rendering Pennsylvania courts without jurisdiction to provide relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Spotz" on Justia Law

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Timothy Jacoby was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him of the 2010 first-degree murder of Monica Schmeyer, burglary, tampering with physical evidence, and robbery. Direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic; the Court found no basis to vacate the penalty, and affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Jacoby" on Justia Law