Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted certiorari review in this matter to determine whether the Department of Transportation (PennDOT) was precluded from suspending an individual’s driving privileges based on a DUI conviction, where there was a lengthy delay between the conviction and the time the driver was notified of the suspension. Under the facts of this case, the Court concluded the trial court’s finding – that Appellee would suffer prejudice if the suspension were to be imposed at this juncture – was supported by competent evidence of record, and moreover, it demonstrated that prejudice would follow from the fact of the delay itself. Additionally, there was no dispute that Appellee did not accrue any additional Vehicle Code violations after his predicate DUI conviction. The Court therefore agreed with the Commonwealth Court majority that a suspension at this late date will have lost much of its effectiveness with regard to its underlying legislative purposes, result in prejudice which can be attributed to the delay, and ultimately deny fundamental fairness. View "PennDOT Bureau of Driver Lic. v. Middaugh" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a line of superior court cases changed the procedural requirements of Section 1106 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Code requiring restitution be set at the time of sentencing. Appellant Steven Cochran, II, briefly stayed at a vacation home owned by his grandparents. In late 2016, Appellant’s grandparents visited the home and found Appellant intoxicated. An altercation ensued, during which Appellant threatened and assaulted his grandmother, and deliberately destroyed various items of personal property. Also during the altercation, a fire was ignited, causing additional damage to the premises and personal property. Appellant was arrested and charged with terroristic threats, simple assault, two counts of criminal mischief, and three counts of harassment. At the beginning of the plea hearing, both counsel informed the trial court that the total restitution claimed exceeded $65,000.00, but that Appellant disputed whether he was responsible for that total amount because some of the destroyed or damaged property had belonged to him. Appellant entered a plea of guilty to one count each of terroristic threats, simple assault, and criminal mischief. In the non-restitution proceedings on June 29, 2017, the trial court sentenced Appellant to an aggregate terms of three to 23 months' incarceration, minus time served. A restitution hearing was set for August 28, 2017. Appealing the eventual amount of restitution ordered, Appellant objected to the trial court's jurisdiction, arguing more than 30 days had passed since the June 2017 order, and that the Commonwealth failed “to make a recommendation for restitution and the trial court failed to set restitution at the time of sentencing on June 29, 2017, as required by 18 Pa.C.S. 1106(c)(2).” A panel of the superior court agreed the trial court erred in failing to set restitution at the time of sentencing, reversed, and remanded fur resentencing. The Supreme Court determined that the superior court erroneously presumed that the “time of sentencing” for the purpose of section 1106 occurred solely on June 29, 2017. Because the final complete sentencing order was entered on September 15, 2017, the Supreme Court concluded Appellant had no basis to challenge the sentencing court’s jurisdiction under Section 1106 (c)(2). View "Pennsylvania v. Cochran II" on Justia Law

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A court of common pleas granted Appellant Noel Montalvo's petition for post-conviction relief by granting a new guilt-phase trial. The Commonwealth appealed the PCRA court’s grant of a new guilt-phase trial; it did not challenge the PCRA court’s grant of a new penalty-phase trial. Appellant cross-appealed to challenge the trial court's rejection of "a myriad of additional bases for granting him a new guilt-phase trial." Appellant was accused of killing, or acting as an accomplice to the killing of his brother's estranged common law wife and the man she may have briefly dated. Appellant's brother was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary, for which he was sentenced to death. Appellant would be convicted by jury on first-degree murder charges for the death of his brother's wife, the second-degree murder of her companion, conspiracy to commit murder and burglary. The jury determined the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances in Appellant's case, and recommended a sentence of death. The PCRA court granted appellant's petition for relief on grounds of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the PCRA court that appellant established his ineffectiveness claim, and therefore, a new guilt-phase trial was warranted. In light of this conclusion, the Court did not address the issues raised by appellant in his cross-appeal. View "Pennsylvania v. Montalvo" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Appellant Keith Alexander's petition for allowance of appeal asking the Court to overrule or limit Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (OAJC), a plurality result announcing that, without limitation, the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution applied in Pennsylvania. "What Gary did not settle is whether the federal automobile exception is consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution." The Court held Article I, Section 8 afforded greater protection than the Fourth Amendment, and reaffirmed prior decisions: the Pennsylvania Constitution required both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of an automobile. View "Pennsylvania v. Alexander" on Justia Law

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Mitchell Gregory Peck, Jr. (“Peck”) was convicted of drug delivery resulting in death, and sentenced to twenty to forty years of imprisonment. In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the interplay between the territorial application of the Crimes Code, including in particular Section 102, 18 Pa.C.S. section 102, and the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction. Specific to this appeal, the Court addressed whether Peck’s conviction was supported by sufficient evidence where the drug delivery occurred in Maryland and the resulting death occurred in Pennsylvania. While the Commonwealth had subject matter jurisdiction to prosecute Peck for DDRD, the Supreme Court determined it could not present evidence to support his conviction. The Superior Court’s decision to the contrary was reversed and Peck’s judgment of sentence was vacated. View "Pennsylvania v. Peck Jr." on Justia Law

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Melvin Knight appealed the death sentence he received for his role in the 2010 torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty (“the Victim”), a 30–year-old intellectually disabled woman. On direct appeal, Appellant raised fourteen issues for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review, including a challenge to the jury’s failure to find as a mitigating circumstance Appellant’s lack of a significant history of prior criminal convictions. In addressing this claim, the Court observed that it was undisputed that Appellant had no prior felony or misdemeanor convictions, a fact to which the prosecutor conceded during closing argument. The Supreme Court largely rejected Appellant's contentions of error, finding that Appellant’s sentence of death was not the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor, but, rather, was fully supported by the evidence that Appellant and his co-defendants held the intellectually-disabled victim against her will for several days, during which time they continuously subjected her to myriad forms of physical and emotional torture, eventually stabbing her in the chest, slicing her throat, strangling her, and stuffing her body into a trash can which they left outside under a truck. As the jury found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, the Court found Appellant’s sentence complied with the statutory mandate for the imposition of a sentence of death. View "Pennsylvania v. Knight" on Justia Law

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Appellant Rod Jones, Jr. was charged with rape and various sexual offenses following allegations by his stepdaughter (“the victim”) of repeated sexual abuse over a period of several years. According to the victim, the first instance of abuse occurred when she was thirteen year sold. The victim did not tell anyone about these incidents for many years. because Appellant told her no one would believe her. The victim also feared what Appellant would say about her to her mother. When the victim was seventeen years old, she eventually told her mother about the abuse. Throughout the trial, defense counsel focused on discrepancies in the victim’s recounting of events in an attempt to undermine her credibility. At one point, the Commonwealth called as a witness Detective Scott Holzwarth, who interviewed the victim during the course of the investigation. The jury ultimately found Appellant guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a person under sixteen years of age, unlawful contact with a minor, aggravated indecent assault, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person under sixteen years of age. The trial court sentenced Appellant to an aggregate term of twenty-seven to sixty years’ imprisonment. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion, which the trial court denied. On appeal, Appellant argued, inter alia, that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Detective Holzwarth to testify that child sexual assault victims were often unable to recall specific details and dates of sexual assaults. The Supreme Court found that expert testimony on the issue of a witness’s credibility was impermissible, as it encroached on the province of the jury to make such determinations. "While some testimony on this topic may be prohibited for impermissibly invading the jury's province of determining credibility, we disagree that all testimony will." The Court held that whether Detective Holzwarth's testimony complied with admissibility considerations was a question for the trial court upon remand. The superior court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Pennsylvania v. Jones Jr." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this case to consider the Superior Court’s application of the Independent Source Doctrine as a basis for upholding the trial court’s order denying the suppression motion filed by appellant Dennis Katona. Secondarily, the Court considered the validity of an intercept order issued under Section 5704(2)(iv) of the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act (“Wiretap Act”), which permitted the recording of in-home conversations when only one party consented, so long as the intercept was approved by an authorized prosecutor and the president judge of a court of common pleas finds that probable cause supports the order. In 2009, the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) began working with a confidential informant (“CI”) who was a member of the Pagan Motorcycle Club. The CI, who had previously provided reliable evidence in other criminal investigations, informed Trooper Matthew Baumgard that appellant was also a member of the Pagans. In 2011, the CI contacted Trooper Baumgard to alert him appellant had unexpectedly arrived at his house that evening and offered to sell him three one-half ounce packages of cocaine for $650 per package. The following day, the CI again reached out to Trooper Baumgard, this time to inform him appellant had made a similar unsolicited stop at another Pagan member’s house in an attempt to sell the cocaine. Several weeks later, the CI was invited to appellant's home, and was again offered to purchase cocaine. The CI took the cocaine, left appellant’s home, immediately called Trooper Baumgard and turned it over to the PSP. The Commonwealth applied for a wiretap order allowing the CI to wear a recording device inside of appellant's home. Wearing the device, the CI made various controlled payments to appellant at appellant's home. During each encounter, Trooper Baumgard and his team surveilled the home and, thereafter, met with the CI to retrieve the recording device. Appellant filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking suppression of all evidence recovered from his home. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court properly involved the Independent Source Doctrine, and therefor did not reach the various statutory and constitutional challenges appellant raised relative to the Wiretap Act. View "Pennsylvania v. Katona" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this case of first impression to consider the Constitutional scope of warrants to search cell phones seized incident to arrest, relating to illegal narcotics activity and firearms possession. Upon review of the facts specific to this case, however, the Court determined the search warrant in this matter was "so lacking in probable cause that it failed to justify any search of appellant's cell phone." The Court thus reversed the trial court's order, finding appellant's motion to suppress evidence obtained related to that search warrant should have been granted. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In 1983, after invading the home of three elderly siblings -- James, Angelina, and Victor Lunario -- Appellant David Chmiel stabbed them to death during the course of a robbery. Police found a makeshift mask at the scene that had been fashioned from a sweater sleeve. This distinctive sweater was soon identified as having belonged to Appellant’s brother, Martin Chmiel. Though initially denying involvement, Martin eventually admitted he and Appellant had jointly planned to burglarize the victims' home. Appellant would later be arrested and tried on three counts of first-degree murder (and other crimes on separate occasions), for which he received a death sentence. Martin testified consistent with police interviews in which he incriminated Appellant. Of particular relevance here, investigators attested to having found samples of hair on the sweater mask located at the crime scene. In June 2015, Appellant filed a serial PCRA petition, challenging the validity of expert testimony presented based on microscopic comparison of hair samples. He cited prominently to a joint press release of the FBI, the DOJ, the Innocence Project, and the NACDL, contending his convictions were based upon “unreliable scientific evidence,” and arguing that the press release was confirmatory. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the PCRA court, which found Appellant failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability the verdict against him would have been different at a trial with different expert testimony. View "Pennsylvania v. Chmiel" on Justia Law