Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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Appellant Mark Prinkey caimed his sentence resulted from a prosecutor’s unconstitutionally vindictive decision to pursue a mandatory minimum term of years. Proceeding from the general principle that a sentence was unlawful if the sentencing court lacks the legal authority to impose that sanction, Pennyslvania law recognized four broad types of legality challenges. The issue this appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether a particular type of claim constituted a challenge to the legality of the sentence, such that it was cognizable under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA): (1) a claim that a sentence was imposed pursuant to a facially unconstitutional sentencing statute; (2) an assertion that statutory preconditions to the court’s sentencing authority were not present; (3) a challenge alleging a violation or nonfulfillment of a substantive, constitutional restriction upon the court’s authority to impose the sentence; and (4) an argument that the statutory support for the conviction is void ab initio. In this case, the Court held that a challenge to a sentence as presumptively vindictive fell within the third category of legality challenges and, thus, was cognizable under the PCRA. View "Pennsylvania v. Prinkey" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on a challenge to the lifetime registration requirement of the Revised Subchapter H of Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”), and whether that requirement was waived because Appellant Shaune Thorne, Sr. did not raise such challenges at the time of his sentencing or in a post-sentence motion but, instead, raised them for the first time in his brief to the Superior Court. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded Appellant did not waive his Apprendi-based and cruel and unusual punishment challenges to the lifetime registration requirement set forth in Revised Subchapter H by raising them for the first time in his brief to the Superior Court, because such claims implicated the legality of a sentence and, therefore, could not be waived. Further, for purposes of clarification, the Court expressly disapproved Commonwealth v. Reslink, 257 A.3d 21 (Pa. Super. 2020) to the extent that it unnecessarily limited a sexual offender’s ability to raise constitutional challenges to Revised Subchapter H by requiring that those challenges be raised before the trial court. View "Pennsylvania v. Thorne" on Justia Law

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In 2013, while in the Navy, Appellee A.L. had intercourse with the adult victim when her ability to consent was impaired by alcohol. He was charged with sexual assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Appellee was tried by general court-martial, with a panel of service members acting as fact-finders. The panel returned a verdict of guilty. Appellee was sentenced to sixty days’ confinement, a reduction in rank, and a dishonorable discharge. He appealed to the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the conviction and sentence. After his discharge from the Navy, Appellee moved to Pennsylvania. He registered with the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) as a sex offender subject to registration under Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). The PSP determined Appellee’s crime triggered a Tier III registration obligation. Appellee appealed that designation, arguing PSP’s action was adjudicative and not merely ministerial. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this matter to determine whether sexual assault as defined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice was comparable to sexual assault as defined under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code so as to make Appellee a lifetime SORNA registrant. The Supreme Court concluded the military statute under which Appellee was convicted effectively defined two crimes, and PSP lacked a valid foundation to discern which of the two formed the basis for the military panel’s finding of guilt. Therefore, Appellee’s court-martial conviction could not be the basis for his classification as a Tier III registrant. View "A. L. v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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On November 17, 2017, Patrolman Brian Shaw of the City of New Kensington Police Department was shot and killed in the line of duty. At 8:06 p.m. Officer Shaw informed dispatch that a vehicle had failed to stop for his lights and sirens. Shortly afterwards, Officer Shaw announced that he was pursuing on foot. Moments later he radioed that he had been shot. Because no one witnessed the shooting, the Commonwealth established appellant Rahmel Sal Holt’s guilt through circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of Tavon Harper, the driver of the vehicle Officer Shaw attempted to stop. Holt would ultimately be convicted, for which he was sentenced to death. Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Holt" on Justia Law

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Appellant Michael Parrish appealed after the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County dismissed his petition for post-conviction relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). To the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Parrish raised numerous claims of error, including a layered ineffectiveness claim in connection with the failure of trial counsel to file a notice of appeal after his conviction and death sentence. The first layer of his claim was the contention that trial counsel were ineffective for not consulting with him regarding his appellate rights before failing to file a notice of appeal, and in so doing, violated a constitutional duty established in Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000). The second layer of the claim was Parrish’s assertion that his initial PCRA counsel’s stewardship of the failure to consult claim before the PCRA court was deficient, in that initial PCRA counsel failed to present any evidence or legal argument to substantiate the failure to consult claim. In his brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Parrish identified the evidence and legal theory that his initial PCRA counsel should have presented to the PCRA court. Parrish raised the second layer of his claim for the first time to the Supreme Court in this appeal, and the Supreme Court concluded he was permitted to do so without a finding of waiver based upon a recent decision in Commonwealth v. Bradley, 261 A.3d 381 (Pa. 2021). Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded this case for the introduction of evidence and legal argument so that the PCRA court could issue a decision on the merits of Parrish’s layered failure to consult claim. View "Pennsylvania v. Parrish" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this matter to determine whether its reasoning in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 231 A.3d 807 (Pa. 2020) applied to preclude the retrial of Appellant Derrick Edwards on double jeopardy principles where the prosecutor acted with discriminatory intent when exercising a peremptory strike of an African American juror in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). After review, the Court held that the prosecutor’s violation of Batson under the circumstances presented did not preclude the retrial of Appellant. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court’s order denying Appellant’s motion to dismiss the charges against him on double jeopardy grounds. View "Pennsylvania v. Edwards" on Justia Law

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In 2009, when he was seventeen-and-a-half years old, appellant Michael Felder was playing in a pick-up basketball game with Andrew Williams at an outdoor court in Philadelphia. The pair were matched against brothers Jarrett and Malcolm Green. Appellant’s style of play became aggressive; an argument ensued after Williams refused to hand the ball over to the Greens. Appellant walked to the sideline and removed a .380 semiautomatic handgun from his gym bag, and shot Malcolm in the head before shooting Jarrett in the stomach and leg. A jury convicted appellant of first-degree murder and aggravated assault. Pursuant to the then-applicable mandatory sentence for first-degree murder, which also applied to juveniles, appellant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Superior Court vacated appellant’s judgment of sentence two years later; by then, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Commonwealth v. Batts, 66 A.3d 286 (Pa. 2013) (“Batts I”) had been decided. Since appellant’s judgment of sentence was not yet final, the Superior Court determined he was entitled to the benefit of those rulings and to consideration of the Miller factors before being resentenced, and remanded the case for such proceedings. Upon remand, the court imposed a discretionary 50-years-to-life sentence for appellant’s first-degree murder conviction. On appeal to the Superior Court, appellant challenged the legality of his sentence, arguing “a 50-year minimum sentence is a de facto life sentence.” The Superior Court found that although the sentence precluded appellant from seeking parole until he was 68 years old, it was constitutional because it “was the result of an individualized and discretionary sentencing hearing[.]” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review limited to whether appellant's sentence was indeed a de facto life sentence requiring the sentencing court under Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017) (“Batts II”), "[to] first find permanent incorrigibility, irreparable corruption or irretrievable depravity beyond a reasonable doubt." The Supreme Court determined Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2021) "abrogates our foundational understanding in Batts II." So long as the sentence imposed is discretionary and takes into account the offender’s youth, even if it amounts to a de facto life sentence, Miller is not violated. "Because the sentencing court in the present case followed this procedure, we affirm." View "Pennsylvania v. Felder" on Justia Law

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As a result of a vehicle search, the Commonwealth discovered a bag of marijuana and a firearm. In connection with these items, the Commonwealth charged Appellant Timothy Barr, II with: persons not to possess a firearm, possession of a firearm without a license, and possession of a small amount of marijuana. Appellant filed an omnibus pretrial motion, which included a motion to suppress the physical evidence gathered by police during the search, and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending that the Commonwealth could not establish a prima facie case that Appellant possessed a small amount of marijuana or committed the firearm offenses. The trial court granted the motion to suppress and granted in part the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, dismissing the count of possession of a small amount of marijuana. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this matter to examine to what extent, if at all, the smell of marijuana could be considered when determining whether law enforcement had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. This issue arose in light of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s enactment of the Medical Marijuana Act, which legalized the possession and use of marijuana in limited circumstances, and the Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Hicks, 208 A.3d 916 (Pa. 2019), which addressed whether police could stop and frisk a person merely based on the fact that the person possessed a concealed firearm in public. Like the Superior Court, the Supreme Court held that the smell of marijuana could be a factor, but not a stand-alone one, in determining whether the totality of the circumstances established probable cause to permit a police officer to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. The Court disagreed with the Superior Court’s decision to remand the matter to the trial court for reconsideration of its order granting the motion to suppress filed by Timothy Barr, II (“Appellant”). Instead, that portion of the Superior Court's decision was vacated, the trial court's judgment reinstated (granting Appellant’s motion to suppress), and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Barr" on Justia Law

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In 1983, David Santana was convicted of rape in New York. At the time, neither New York nor Pennsylvania had enacted a sex offender registration scheme. However, as time passed, states began enacting statutory schemes aimed at monitoring sexual offenders by requiring them to comply with strict registration and notification requirements. In 1995, New York passed the “Sex Offender Registration Act” (“SORA”), which became effective in January 1996. Pennsylvania followed suit, enacting the first version of Megan’s Law in 1995. In this case, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether its decision in Commonwealth v. Muniz (holding that SORNA constituted a punitive regulatory scheme that, when imposed retroactively to sex offenders who committed their offenses prior to SORNA’s enactment, amounted to an unconstitutional ex post-facto law) applied with equal force to offenders whose triggering offenses occurred in another state. The Supreme Court concluded that it did, thereby affirming the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Santana" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from the prosecution of two defendants in connection with alleged hazing rituals at Penn State University in 2016 and 2017 that led to the death of Timothy Piazza. The prosecutions proceeded at multiple docket numbers for each defendant, and although the common pleas court consolidated the docket numbers for trial, the docket numbers were not consolidated for all purposes. Defense suppression motions were granted in part and the Commonwealth filed two interlocutory appeals, one for each defendant. The notice of appeal for each defendant contained all docket numbers pertaining to that defendant. The Superior Court determined separate notices of appeal should have been filed for each docket number and quashed the appeals pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in Commonwealth v. Walker, 185 A.3d 969, 976 (Pa. 2018). The Supreme Court granted review to examine whether the intermediate court correctly applied the holding in Walker considering the Commonwealth’s position the matter was more properly controlled by Always Busy Consulting, LLC v. Babford & Co., Inc., 247 A.3d 1033 (Pa. 2021) The Supreme Court concluded the exception to the Walker rule enunciated in "ABC" was not broad enough to encompass this appeal. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court remanded to the Superior Court to determine, in its discretion, whether the Commonwealth should have been granted relief through application of the safe harbor provision of Pa.R.A.P. 902. View "Pennsylvania v. Young" on Justia Law