Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by this case was one of first impression: whether a woman’s use of opioids while pregnant, which results in a child born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome(“NAS”), constitutes “child abuse.” In 2016, A.A.R. (“Mother”), was released from incarceration, after which she relapsed into drug addiction, using opioids (pain pills) and marijuana. Mother subsequently learned that she was pregnant with L.J.B. (“Child”). She sought treatment for her addiction, first through a methadone maintenance program and then with subutex. Mother again relapsed, and in mid-January 2017 she tested positive for opiates, benzodiazepines and marijuana, none of which were prescribed for her. Mother gave birth to Child on January 27, 2017; at the time of Child’s birth, Mother tested positive for marijuana and subutex. By the third day of life, Child began exhibiting symptoms of NAS, including tremors, excessive suck, increased muscle tone and loose stools, which doctors treated with morphine. Mother reportedly left Child in the hospital and did not consistently check on her or stay with her (despite the availability of a room for her to do so). Hospital personnel communicated all of this information to the Clinton County Children and Youth Social Services Agency (“CYS”), which ultimately took emergency custody of the child. The Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law (“CPSL”) defined “child abuse,” in relevant part, as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly ... (1) [c]ausing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act,” or “(5) [c]reating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act.” The Supreme Court concluded,based on the relevant statutory language, that a mother cannot be found to be a perpetrator of child abuse against her newly born child for drug use while pregnant. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter for reinstatement of the trial court’s order. View "In the Interest of: L.J.B" on Justia Law

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William Rivera appealed the death sentence he received for the 1995 carjacking and murder of Tae Hung Kang. The Post-Conviction Relief court limited his appeal to one issue — whether penalty phase counsel was ineffective for failing to present mental health and life history mitigation evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated on numerous occasions that “no number of failed claims may collectively warrant relief i[f] they fail to do so individually.” However, the Court has also acknowledged that “‘if multiple instances of deficient performance are found, the assessment of prejudice properly may be premised upon cumulation.’” The Court found "the great majority" of appellant’s individual claims lacked merit, therefore the Court was satisfied appellant was not entitled to relief based on cumulative prejudice. Therefore, the PCR court properly dismissed appellant's petition for relief after having limited its hearing to one issue. View "Pennsylvania v. Rivera" on Justia Law

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In this opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a question left unanswered by its July 27, 2018 opinion. Specifically, the Court addressed what, if any, due process remedy was available to Petitioners, who were former and current priests in various Catholic Dioceses throughout Pennsylvania specifically condemned in Report 1 of the 40th Investigating Grand Jury (“Report 1”) as “predator priests,” to secure their constitutionally guaranteed right to reputation. The Court concluded that it could not employ any of the remedies offered by the parties, and, thus, the Court had to make permanent the redaction of Petitioners’ identifying information from Report 1, which was previously ordered as an interim measure, “as this is the only viable due process remedy we may now afford to Petitioners to protect their constitutional rights to reputation.” View "In Re: Fortieth Statewide Investigation Grand Jury" on Justia Law

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Appellant James Williams appealed a Court of Common Pleas order dismissing his timely first petition for post-conviction relief. In 1995, Appellant, together with four co-defendants, planned to rob Richard White, a drug dealer they believed to possess significant amounts of cash. During the commission of the robbery outside White’s home, Appellant shot White three times with a MAC 10 automatic weapon. White died from his wounds. Acting pro se, Appellant was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery, for which Appellant was sentenced to death. On appeal, Appellant again proceeded pro se with access to new standby counsel. For post-conviction relief proceedings, the court appointed counsel to represent Appellant. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded after review, Appellant did not present a meritorious issue eligible for relief under the PCRA, and affirmed dismissal of Appellant’s petition for relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Appellee Tex Ortiz was the single father of a two-and-one-half year-old daughter, J.O., with whom he resided. n Allegheny County. In December 2015, the child’s maternal grandmother secured interim primary legal and physical custody of J.O. in a judicial proceeding at which Appellee failed to appear. The grandmother and others made various attempts to implement the custody order, but initially neither Appellee nor J.O. could be located. Appellee apparently took various measures to conceal his and J.O’s whereabouts, and he was eventually located where he surrendered the child to authorities and was arrested. Appellee was charged with various offenses, and convicted of interference with custody of children (“ICC”), a third-degree felony, and kidnapping of a minor under Section 2901(a.1)(2) of the Crimes Code. Throughout the proceedings, Appellee maintained that ICC, committed by a biological parent, could not serve as a predicate felony for purposes of kidnapping of a minor under Section 2901(a.1)(2). Appellee relied substantially upon Commonwealth v. Barfield, 768 A.2d 343 (Pa. Super. 2001). The trial court rejected his argument, intermixing into its explanation a classification of kidnapping with which Appellee was not charged. On appeal, the superior court reversed, relying substantially upon the Barfield decision, recognizing that intermediate-court decisions subsequent to Barfield had determined that a parent could be validly convicted of kidnapping of a minor. According to the superior court, however, where the intention of a defendant-parent is solely to retain custody and/or, correspondingly, reflects a desire to maintain an existing bond with a child, kidnapping of a minor will not lie. Ultimately, the intermediate court determined that ICC cannot serve as a predicate offense, under Section 2901(a.1)(2), where the defendant is the biological parent of the child addressed by the relevant custody order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the superior Court and affirmed its judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. Ortiz" on Justia 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