Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Pennsylvania Supreme Court

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Appellant raised twenty-five lettered issues, "nearly exhausting the alphabet," to challenge the two death sentences he received after a jury convicted him of first degree murder and abuse of corpse. "Appellant’s brief is replete with beyond-boilerplate allegations containing sparse argument and even less citation to supporting authority or identification of pertinent portions of the record. His attempt to incorporate the entire trial transcript into his brief [was] insufficient, [. . .] as are his bald assertions containing no developed argument." Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed appellant's convictions and sentences. View "Pennsylvania v. Perez" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth filed a criminal complaint charging appellee Junius Burno with, inter alia, two counts of criminal homicide. A jury found him guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. The jury found one aggravating circumstance and the mitigation catchall, and determined that the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating, thus sentencing appellee to death. The Commonwealth appealed the trial court’s order granting appellee a new trial based on his trial counsel’s alleged ineffective representation in failing to object to remarks made by the prosecutor during her closing argument to the jury. Appellee filed a cross-appeal claiming the trial court erred in refusing to grant him relief on numerous remaining issues, which he raised in post-sentence motions. Upon review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order granting Burno’s motion for a new trial, remanded for the resolution of any pending preserved claims related to trial court error raised in appellee's post-sentence motion, and dismissed his claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel without prejudice to his right to pursue those collateral claims under the PCRA. View "Pennsylvania v. Burno" on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from two armed robberies which occurred within two weeks of each other in October 2005 in Philadelphia. In both incidents, University students were approached by a man alleged to be Appellant, Benjamin Walker. The assailant drew a handgun, and demanded money. In this appeal by allowance the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a trial court may, in its discretion, permit expert testimony in the area of eyewitness identification, and, in doing so, the Court reconsidered its then-current decisional law which absolutely banned such expert testimony. The Court held that, in Pennsylvania, the admission of expert testimony regarding eyewitness identification is no longer per se impermissible, and joined the majority of jurisdictions which leave the admissibility of such expert testimony to the discretion of the trial court. Thus, the order of the Superior Court was reversed, and the case remanded back to the trial court for reconsideration of such expert testimony. View "Pennsyvlania v. Walker" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth appealed a Superior Court that affirmed the pre-trial order of the court of common pleas permitting appellee Jose Alicia to introduce expert testimony concerning the phenomenon of "false confessions" at his upcoming murder trial. Appellee filed a Motion for Use of a False Confessions Expert, averring that he was of low intelligence and has been an SSI disability beneficiary due to mental health issues most of his life. The only evidence identifying Appellee as the shooter of George Rowe (other than his confession) came from two corrupt sources, one of whom initially stated that the shooter was Jeremy Duffy. Appellee believed Duffy was the shooter, and that the evidence at trial would have shown that Appellee was told by Duffy’s associates to “take the fall for the real perpetrator.” According to the Motion, the text of Appellee’s confession, along with his handwritten corrections, "provide a number of clues indicating it is a false confession." Because the Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth that such testimony was not admissible, the Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Alicia" on Justia Law

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Appellant Richard Baumhammers went on a two-hour crime spree in 2000 whereby he shot six racial or ethnic minorities. Four victims died of their wounds; the fifth was paralyzed from the neck down. During the spree, appellant burned his Jewish neighbor's house, and damaged two synagogues by spray painting swastikas on the outside then shooting bullets into both. Appellant was charged with five counts of first-degree murder and related offenses. He was found guilty by jury and sentenced to death. Appellant petitioned for post-conviction relief, which was ultimately denied. On appeal to the Supreme Court, appellant argued multiple instances of violations of appellant's constitutional rights were violated, and multiple instances of alleged ineffective assistance of counsel (both at trial and in the penalty phase). The Supreme Court found no reason to overturn the PCRA Court's ruling on appellant's claims of error, and therefore affirmed appellant's conviction and sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Baumhammers" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Philadelphia Police Officers were on patrol in their marked car in the area of North 58th Street and Florence Avenue when they observed appellee Sheim Gary driving an SUV with heavily tinted windows. Appellee would later be arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to deliver. The issue this case presented to the Supreme Court centered on the requirements in the Commonwealth for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. After consideration of relevant federal and state law, the Court held that with respect to a warrantless search of a motor vehicle that was supported by probable cause, Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution affords no greater protection than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Accordingly, the Court adopted the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so and does not require any exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle. View "Commonwealth v. Gary" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Appellant of one count of first-degree murder and one count of burglary. The jury concluded, with respect to imposition of sentence, that the aggravating circumstances (committing murder to prevent testimony in a possible criminal proceeding regarding a felony and committing a killing in perpetration of a felony) outweighed the mitigating circumstance (character and record). Upon review, and finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed Appellant's conviction. View "Pennsylvania v. Morales" on Justia Law

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Appellant Maurice "Boo" Patterson appealed his death sentence after he was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy, and criminal solicitation. The charges against Appellant arose from the fatal shooting of Eric "Bop" Sawyer by Sean "Raydar" Durrant. Durrant confessed to shooting the victim, but claimed he did so at the behest of Appellant, who had been incarcerated in the Lycoming County Prison. Appellant filed post-sentence motions on in 2010 and 2011; the motions were denied in 2012. However, upon discovering that Appellant's sentence for criminal conspiracy was an illegal sentence, in that it exceeded the maximum sentence for the crime, the trial court vacated that portion of Appellant's sentence and resentenced him to 10 to 20 years, to be served concurrently with his death sentence for the murder conviction. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed Appellant's conviction. View "Pennsylvania v. Patterson" on Justia Law

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In 2008, the dismembered body of Deanna Null was discovered in seven garbage bags strewn along Pennsylvania Routes 80 and 380. After receiving information that Null was last seen riding with appellee, police interviewed him. He admitted smoking crack cocaine with Null in the past and giving her money and drugs in exchange for sex. Appellee was arrested and charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, and abuse of a corpse. The Commonwealth sought the death penalty. Prior to trial, the Commonwealth provided notice under Pa.R.E. 404(b)2 of its intent to present evidence of "prior bad acts" through several named witnesses. In this appeal, the issue before the Supreme Court centered on Pa.R.E. 403 and 404(b). The trial court ruled pre-trial that certain Commonwealth witnesses identified pursuant to Rule 404 would be cumulative, rendering their testimony inadmissible under Rule 403. The Court concluded this was error, reversed the Superior Court's order, and remanded to the trial court. View "Pennsylvania v. Hicks" on Justia Law

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In 2008, a high school student was involved in a traffic stop and was subsequently arrested for illegal possession of prescription drugs. Later that evening, Pennsylvania State Trooper Scott Miscannon met with the student, who quickly agreed to become a confidential informant. The trooper proposed that the student engage in a controlled buy in order to inculpate the arrestee's drug supplier. The student agreed to participate and identified Appellee as his dealer named "Wes," provided a description of Wes's appearance and his automobile, and indicated he could contact Wes via cell phone. The Commonwealth charged Appellee with three counts each of possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Appellee filed a motion to suppress the entirety of the evidence against him based upon alleged violation of the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act. Following a hearing, the trial court granted the motion to suppress, and the Commonwealth appealed to Superior Court. In a unanimous, unpublished memorandum opinion, the Superior Court affirmed the suppression of the evidence. Reviewing the Act's definitions of "intercept[ion]" and "device," the court rejected the Commonwealth's argument that the cell phone did not fall within the definition of a "device" under the Act. While the court agreed that the cell phone was not a device with respect to the student, it opined that the phone was nevertheless a device with respect to Trooper Miscannon because the service provider had not furnished it to him. Accordingly, the court concluded that Trooper Miscannon's dialing, direction to place the call on speaker mode, and listening to the conversation constituted his use of the student's cell phone, and, because the trooper was not a furnished "subscriber or user" of the cell phone, this use was an unlawful interception under the provisions of the Act. Analyzing the statutory language employed by the General Assembly in the definitional portion of the Wiretap Act, the Supreme Court saw "no basis upon which to categorize the [student's] cell phone as a device with respect to him, but not as a device with respect to the Commonwealth." Accordingly the Superior Court's order was reversed. View "Pennsylvania v. Spence" on Justia Law