Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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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

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In March 2016, Christa Nesbitt was working as a server at the Whistle Stop diner in Oreland, Pennsylvania, when she first met Daniel Talley. Over the next several months, their friendly chats led to mutual affection, which then evolved into an intimate and physical relationship. In September 2016, Talley asked Nesbitt and her minor daughter, R.N., to move into his home. Nesbitt agreed. She and R.N. lived with Talley until the spring of 2017. At the end of May 2017, Nesbitt and R.N. moved out of Talley’s house. The next day, Nesbitt began receiving threatening and harassing messages on her mobile phone from unfamiliar email addresses. Nesbitt ultimately reported the threats to police, by August, Talley was arrested for aggravated assault, stalking, harassment and related offenses. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review of this matter to resolve two distinct legal issues: (1) the Commonwealth’s burden of proof when it seeks to deprive the accused of his or her state constitutional right to bail; and (2) whether the best-evidence rule allows a party to introduce printed photographs of text messages as they appeared on a cellphone’s interface—i.e., “screenshots.” The Supreme Court found that while the trial court committed an error of law in denying Talley’s motion for release on nominal bail, Talley was due no relief because he failed to prove that the error affected the outcome of his trial. Nor was a new trial warranted on his best-evidence claim, since the lower courts concluded correctly that the screenshots of the text messages were admissible duplicates. View "Pennsylvania v. Talley" on Justia Law

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Appellant Joseph McCabe was arrested on charges of theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property in connection with the April 2015 taking of a collection of gold coins from the home of Thomas and Kathy Mohn, with whom Appellant had been staying. Montgomery County had instituted a Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) Program in 2011; Appellant applied for participation in the VTC and was accepted into the program. As a condition thereof, he entered an open plea to the theft charge graded as a third-degree felony. The VTC’s order accepting the plea noted that sentence would be deferred and, as a condition, that a restitution hearing would be scheduled. Appellant successfully completed the requirements and conditions of the VTC program. The court reviewed the sentencing guidelines and acknowledged Appellant’s success in the VTC program, and sentenced Appellant to a two-year term of probation. Appellant moved for reconsideration of the sentence, which was ultimately denied. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted certiorari review in this case to determine whether a problem-solving court like the VTC, was subject to to Chapter 3 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure (the Rules) governing Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD). The Court also considered whether Appellant, due to his inability to fully pay restitution, was denied the full benefit of the problem-solving court in contravention of his rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court found positive sentencing consideration, including dismissal of charges, could accompany a successful completion of the program, but the program did not create guarantees, procedures, or discretion not already authorized under the Rules. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s determination that the trial court’s sentencing order regarding restitution was not governed by Chapter 3 of the Rules. The Court also affirmed the judgments of the lower courts, finding no as-applied constitutional infirmities to have been established in Appellant’s claim. View "Pennsylvania v. McCabe" on Justia Law

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During the investigation, officers obtained a warrant to search for evidence of possession and distribution of child pornography on the electronic devices in the home of Appellant, Eric Green. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this matter to address whether that search warrant was overbroad. After careful consideration, the Court found no reversible error with the lower courts' determinations that the warrant was not overbroad because it described the physical devices and digital data for which there was probable cause as nearly as may be under the circumstances. Accordingly, the Superior Court judgment was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Green" on Justia Law

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In February 2017, Caleb Zweig died after a brief but tragic interaction with his college fraternity brother, appellant Brady DiStefano. Appellant initially was charged with aggravated assault and criminal homicide due to this encounter; however, the criminal homicide charge later was dismissed as the Commonwealth failed to produce prima facie evidence to support it. In response to Appellant’s subsequent pretrial motion, the trial court entered an order precluding the Commonwealth from presenting at Appellant’s trial any evidence suggesting that Appellant caused Zweig’s death. The Commonwealth appealed that order to the Superior Court, which reversed the trial court’s order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to determine whether the Superior Court misapplied the appellate court standard for reviewing trial court evidentiary rulings. After careful consideration, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court misapplied the relevant standard of review in reversing the trial court’s order. Thus, it vacated the Superior Court’s judgment, reinstated the trial court’s order, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Distefano" on Justia Law

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Some time between mid-January and the early part of February 2018, K.S., a 14- year-old student at West Side Career and Technology Center (“WSCTS”), a vocational high school, heard appellant, a 15-year-old student at the school, say he “doesn’t think people deserve to live and everyone should just die.” Appellant’s second statement was made on February 20, 2018, six days after 17 high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were fatally shot. M.W., a 15-year-old classmate of appellant’s, overheard appellant say “[h]e wanted to beat the record of 19.” M.W. heard this statement from only two or three feet away while in the hallway between classes. Although appellant’s remark was not directed at her, M.W. was unsure whether he was “talking to someone [else], or [if] he just said it” aloud. K.S.,after learning of appellant’s “beat the record” statement secondhand, followed suit and reported what she had heard. The Commonwealth later charged appellant with terroristic threats pursuant to Section 2706(a)(1) and (3) of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, and disorderly conduct. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court observed it “remains an open question” whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permitted States to criminalize threats made in reckless disregard of the risk of causing fear. In this opinion, the Court resolved that issue, holding that the First Amendment tolerates a conviction — in this case, under Pennsylvania’s terroristic threats statute, for making a threatening statement even where the speaker did not intend to cause terror. However, after its de novo review of the record, the Court felt constrained to conclude the statements underlying appellant's adjudication, "though perhaps concerning to some because they were uttered in a school hallway only days after a deadly high school shooting," did not cross the constitutional threshold from protected speech to an unprotected true threat. The Court therefore vacated appellant’s adjudication of delinquency. View "In the Interest of: J.J.M." on Justia Law

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Appellant Robert Wharton appealed an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County dismissing his fourth petition pursuant to the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). A jury convicted Appellant of two counts of first-degree murder, four counts of criminal conspiracy, four counts of burglary, and one count of robbery. The jury subsequently sentenced Appellant to death for each of the murder convictions, and the court sentenced him to a consecutive aggregate term of incarceration of 39 to 140 years for the remaining charges. On direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied guilt phase relief, but vacated the death sentence and remanded for resentencing based on a holding that the trial court’s failure to define the term torture for the jury was prejudicially deficient. Following a new sentencing hearing, a jury once again sentenced Appellant to death for each of the murder convictions, which the Supreme Court affirmed. After review, the Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the PCRA court's dismissal of Appellant's fourth petition for post-conviction relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Wharton" on Justia Law