Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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In 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court remanded this capital appeal to the PCRA court for further consideration of Russell Cox’s claim that, due to his intellectual disability, the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), precluded him from being sentenced to death. Upon remand, the PCRA court reconsidered the record and again determined Cox failed to establish he was entitled to relief. The Supreme Court vacated that second decision and remanded again for reconsideration. "[T]he Eighth Amendment compels courts applying our definition of intellectual disability to take into account, and to be guided by, current medical practices. The medical standards that we have adopted in Pennsylvania recommend the use of standardized measures, but do not mandate their use as the sole means to ascertain a person’s adaptive behaviors. Nor do current medical practices require clinicians or courts to ignore all other evidence when a standardized measure either is unavailable or incredible. The PCRA court operated under a contrary belief, and erroneously terminated its analysis prematurely upon determining that Dr. Toomer administered and evaluated the standardized test improperly. The court found that, without credible standardized test results, it became effectively impossible for Cox to show that he suffered from significant deficits in adaptive behavior. Our law neither compels nor supports this truncated analysis." View "Pennsylvania v. Cox" on Justia Law

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Appellant Aquil Johnson claimed he was entitled to a refund of monies deducted from his inmate account pursuant to Act 84 because no procedural safeguards were in place when the deductions began. Recent decisions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, certain safeguards had to be applied before the first Act 84 deduction was made in connection with a given criminal sentence. The issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case was whether relief was available where the first deduction was made before those decisions were announced. The Supreme Court found that due process mandated the Department of Corrections afford post-deprivation process analogous to the pre-deprivation procedures required by Bundy v. Wetzel, 184 A.3d 551 (2018). Further development was required to determine whether the Department already supplied Appellant with adequate post-deprivation process. The Court found Appellant failed to set forth a valid basis to implicate an administrative ability-to-pay hearing. The Commonwealth Court was affirmed insofar as it dismissed Appellant’s claims relating to negligence and the administrative ability-to-pay hearing; it was vacated to the extent it dismissed Appellant’s claim relating to due process. The matter is remanded for further proceedings. View "Johnson v. Wetzel" on Justia Law

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Ordinarily, a petitioner seeking relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), has to file the petition within one year of the date upon which his or her judgment of sentence becomes final. The PCRA set forth three exceptions to this one-year limitation. Among these is the “newly discovered fact” exception, which rendered a petition timely when the petitioner establishes that “the facts upon which the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence.” Interpreting this provision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the newly discovered fact exception was limited by a presumption relating to matters of public record, pursuant to which a court may find that information available to the public is not a fact that is “unknown” to the petitioner. In this case, the superior court reversed the PCRA court’s order granting relief to Appellant Elwood Small, reasoning, inter alia, that the Supreme Court's holding in Commonwealth v. Burton, 158 A.3d 618 (Pa. 2017) did not apply to Small because he was represented by counsel some years earlier, in separate post-conviction proceedings, and thus could not be considered pro se for purposes of Burton. Although the Supreme Court ultimately concluded Small was not entitled to relief, it nonetheless was persuaded by Small’s frontal challenge to the public record presumption: "Small’s assertion of newly discovered facts is not foreclosed pursuant to a categorical presumption regarding matters of public record. However, because the Commonwealth has established that the factual record does not support Small’s position on the statutory requirements, Small nonetheless cannot establish the applicability of an exception to the PCRA’s time bar, and the PCRA court accordingly lacked jurisdiction to award him relief upon his substantive claims." View "Pennsylvania v. Small" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of an altercation over a debt, during which Appellant Christopher Weir struck and damaged Jacob Korimko's motorcycle. Weir was charged with one count each of burglary, criminal mischief, harassment, and disorderly conduct. He proceeded to a non-jury trial in October 2017. Concerning the damage to his motorcycle, Korimko testified at trial that he paid $2492 to repair his vehicle: $1492 for new parts and $1000 to paint the new parts. Korimko testified that he could not afford the painting expense, so the new parts remained unpainted. The trial court found Weir guilty, and sentenced him to probate for two years and ninety days. The trial court also ordered restitution totaling $2000, noting it was "splitting the paint job cost only because we don’t have accurate detailed information in that regard." Weir filed a timely post-sentence motion, raising a challenge to the weight of the evidence supporting the verdict and a non-specified challenge to the restitution order, claiming the latter “exceeds the amount of loss suffered by [Korimko] in repairing the damage to his bike.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a challenge to the amount of restitution imposed pursuant to Section 1106 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code implicated the discretionary aspects of sentencing or the legality of the sentence, "a dichotomy relevant to the need for issue preservation." Upon review, the Court concluded that a challenge to the sentencing court’s determination as to the amount of restitution sounded in sentencing discretion and, therefore, had to be preserved. The Superior Court’s ruling was affirmed; Weir’s restitution challenge implicated a discretionary aspect of the sentence that was not properly preserved and, therefore, was waived. View "Pennsylvania v. Weir" on Justia Law

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In the early morning hours of April 22, 2015, several police officers, including Sergeant Joseph Blaze, were investigating a report of shots fired. The investigation lead Sergeant Blaze to the intersection of Frankstown Road and Robinson Boulevard. As the sergeant drove through that intersection with a green light, he heard tires squealing and observed a dark gray vehicle speeding directly at him. Appellant Bryan Hill was driving that vehicle; the vehicle entered the intersection in an uncontrolled skid and nearly hit Sergeant Blaze’s police car. The sergeant turned his vehicle around and pursued Appellant. Other officers soon joined in the pursuit. Sergeant Blaze and Officer Dustin Hess eventually observed Appellant walking away from his vehicle, which was parked in a residential driveway. As Appellant approached the front door of that residence, the officers noticed that he appeared to be intoxicated. Officer Hess ordered Appellant to stop so the officers could speak with him, but Appellant ignored the directive, choosing instead to pound on the front door of the home and to exclaim to the officers, inter alia, “I didn’t almost hit you . . . I wasn’t going too fast . . . I made it home.” The officers ultimately escorted Appellant to the police station for chemical testing. Appellant, however, was belligerent and uncooperative. He refused to take a breathalyzer test. Relevant to this appeal, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with two counts of DUI. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether Appellant raised a non-waivable federal double jeopardy challenge to the legality of his sentence imposed for two guilty verdicts of driving under the influence of alcohol stemming from one act of DUI, and if so, whether that claim had merit. The Supreme Court concluded Appellant's double jeopardy claim, solely as it related to his second sentence for DUI, implicated the legality of his sentence, rendering the claim immune from waiver. "Regarding the substance of that claim, we need not reach a definitive conclusion that Appellant’s sentence violates double jeopardy because his sentence is illegal on non-constitutional grounds." Accordingly, the Court vacated in part the trial court's judgment and Appellant's second DUI sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Hill" on Justia Law

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This case was one of several similarly situated capital appeals involving former Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s role as the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. In 2017, the Honorable Leon Tucker, Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (“PCRA court”), granted appellant Anthony Reid relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act in the form of nunc pro tunc reinstatement of his right to appeal the order denying his first timely PCRA petition. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously affirmed the order denying appellant’s first PCRA petition; however, the PCRA court concluded the Supreme Court had to reconsider appellant’s PCRA appeal again, this time without the participation of Chief Justice Castille, pursuant to Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S.Ct. 1899 (2016). While the Pennsylvania Court agreed Chief Justice Castille’s participation in appellant’s prior PCRA appeal implicated the same due process concerns at issue in Williams, the Supreme Court concluded the lower court lacked jurisdiction under the PCRA to reinstate appellant’s nunc pro tunc right to appeal. Consequently, the Supreme Court also lacked jurisdiction, and was compelled to quash this serial appeal as untimely. View "Pennsylvania v. Reid" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether the statute criminalizing retaliation against witnesses applied only to witnesses in civil litigation. In March 2014, Husband and Wife witnessed a fatal shooting outside their home. In their grand jury testimony about the incident, they implicated Theodore Smedley. In June 2015, shortly before Smedley’s trial was scheduled to begin, an arson fire occurred at the couple’s house, where they and their daughter were sleeping. Although the flames engulfed the home, all three occupants escaped, albeit with injuries. Appellant Charles Nevels, Smedley’s cousin, was eventually arrested in connection with the fire and charged with multiple counts of retaliation against a witness, attempted homicide, and aggravated arson. A jury convicted Appellant on all counts, and he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. On appeal, Appellant argued, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain his conviction for retaliation against a witness. Appellant argued that 18 Pa.C.S. 4953(a) required the retaliation to have been committed against a “witness, victim or a party in a civil matter.” He maintained that such language excluded Husband and Wife because they provided testimony in a criminal matter. A divided superior court affirmed Appellant's sentence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed with Appellant's preferred reading of the statute, "there is little indication that that addition to the list of persons protected under Section 4953 was intended to affirmatively remove protections that already existed for victims and witnesses in criminal matters." Judgment was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Nevels III" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review in this case was whether the Mercer County, Pennsylvania District Attorney's Office, and later the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, violated the due process rights of Appellant Michael Bagnall under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) when it failed to disclose a cooperation agreement between the DA's Office and a key witness in Appellant's murder prosecution. The issue arose under circumstances where the OAG assumed the prosecution of Appellant prior to trial due to a conflict of interest between the DA’s Office and Appellant’s defense counsel, and the OAG was never made aware of the existence of the agreement. After review of the trial court record, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the OAG was imputed with knowledge of the agreement between the DA’s Office and the key witness at Appellant’s trial, and that, having satisfied all of the requirements for establishing a Brady violation, Appellant was entitled to a new trial. Because the Superior Court reached a contrary result, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. View "Pennsylvania v. Bagnall" on Justia Law

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In April 2015, Appellant James Byrd, a/k/a/ Al-Tariq Sharif Ali Byrd, moved in with Dana Heaps after being released on bail for charges filed in February, 2015 unrelated to this case. While residing with Heaps, Appellant learned she was taking Seroquel, a prescription anti-psychotic medication. Appellant told Heaps that he did not approve of her taking the medicine. He took the Seroquel away from her. Unbeknownst to Heaps, in mid-May 2015, Appellant apparently gave Heaps a larger dose than was prescribed, causing Heaps to become unconscious. Appellant later showed Heaps, and her friend, Carlos Dukes, a cell phone video of Heaps in her state of unconsciousness. Heaps testified the video showed Appellant removing her clothes, rubbing his penis on her face, inserting his penis in her mouth, and engaging in vaginal and anal intercourse with her, all while she remained unconscious. Heaps later told investigating officers that Appellant told her the video should serve as a warning to her on the dangers of taking Seroquel. A month later, Appellant was arrested on a parole violation warrant issued by the State of Ohio and recommitted to the Allegheny County Jail. Between June 2015 and February 2016, while incarcerated at the jail, Appellant received several visits from Heaps. At the time, all visits at the Allegheny County Jail were conducted over a closed-circuit system using telephone-like handsets. Before the parties were connected to speak, a verbal alert advised, “this call may be monitored or recorded.” Heaps, her boyfriend, and her family, contacted the the police to report that Appellant was threatening them through phone calls from the Allegheny County jail. In its investigation of these new allegations, the Commonwealth obtained the recordings of the conversations between Appellant and Heaps made during her jail visits. In one particular conversation, Appellant and Heaps discussed the May 2015 assault. The Commonwealth charged Appellant with one count of rape of an unconscious victim, two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse of an unconscious victim, two counts of aggravated indecent assault of an unconscious victim, two counts of terroristic threats, and one count each of stalking, indecent assault of an unconscious person, invasion of privacy, and persons not to possess firearms. Appellant moved to suppress the recordings of the jail-visit conversations, contending they were made in violation of the Wiretap Act. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the recording warning Appellant he “may be monitored or recorded,” and Appellant’s conduct in speaking after the warning, satisfies the mutual consent exception to the Wiretap Act. View "Pennsylvania v. Byrd" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the Commonwealth challenged orders of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas relieving appellees, Claude Lacombe and Michael Witmayer, of their duty to comply with Subchapter I of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), based upon the court’s finding Subchapter I, as retroactively applied to appellees, was a punitive and unconstitutional ex post facto law. After review of the trial court records, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred, and found Subchapter I was nonpunitive and did not violate the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws. View "Pennsylvania v. Witmayer" on Justia Law