Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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In this discretionary appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on the permissible scope of a warrantless search of a cell phone by police and the confines of the harmless error doctrine. Specifically, the issue was whether powering on a cell phone to gather evidence, without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court held that accessing any information from a cell phone without a warrant contravened the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014). Furthermore, the Court held that the error of admitting the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the cell phone in this case was not harmless. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Fulton" on Justia Law

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At a jury trial, Appellee Angel Resto was convicted of, among other offenses, rape of a child. The issue his appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether a mandatory minimum sentencing provision that did not require proof of any aggravating fact violated the Sixth Amendment per Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013). At sentencing, the common pleas court implemented the mandatory minimum sentence for that offense. On appeal, Appellee challenged the constitutional validity of his sentence under Alleyne, which disapproved judicial fact-finding related to “facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences.” The Superior Court affirmed by way of a memorandum decision, finding that the intermediate court had “systematically been declaring unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that permit a trial court, rather than a jury, to make the critical factual findings for sentencing.” Assuming there were facts to be found under 18 Pa.C.S. 9718(a)(3), the panel explained that Section 9718(c), which directed sentencing judges to assess aggravating facts delineated in Section 9718(a), had been found to be unconstitutional and non-severable. The Commonwealth maintains its central position that there are no aggravating facts to be found under Section 9718(a)(3), and therefore, Alleyne is inapposite. The Supreme Court found that contrary to Appellee’s position, a conviction returned by a jury to which a mandatory minimum sentence directly attaches was not the same as an aggravating fact that increased a mandatory minimum sentence. The Court held Section 9718(a)(3) did not implicate Alleyne; and that 9718(a)(3), together with subsections (a)(1), (a)(2), (b), (c), (d) and (e) reflected a discrete series of crimes implicating mandatory minimum sentences coupled with the entire implementing scheme designed by the Pennsylvania Legislature. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded for reinstatement of Appellee's judgment of sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Resto" on Justia Law

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In a January 22, 2018 order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that the Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011, 25 P.S. sec. 3596.101 et seq. (the “2011 Plan”), “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. This adjudication was based on the uncontradicted evidentiary record developed at the Commonwealth Court level, wherein Petitioners established that the 2011 Plan was a partisan gerrymander, “designed to dilute the votes of those who in prior elections voted for the party not in power in order to give the party in power a lasting electoral advantage.” As a result, the Supreme Court fashioned an appropriate remedial districting plan, based on the record developed with the Commonwealth Court, drawing heavily upon the submissions provided by the parties, intervenors and amici. The Remedial Plan will be implemented in preparation for the May 15, 2018 primary election. View "League of Women Voters of PA et al v Cmwlth et al" on Justia Law

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In a January 22, 2018 order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that the Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011, 25 P.S. sec. 3596.101 et seq. (the “2011 Plan”), “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. This adjudication was based on the uncontradicted evidentiary record developed at the Commonwealth Court level, wherein Petitioners established that the 2011 Plan was a partisan gerrymander, “designed to dilute the votes of those who in prior elections voted for the party not in power in order to give the party in power a lasting electoral advantage.” As a result, the Supreme Court fashioned an appropriate remedial districting plan, based on the record developed with the Commonwealth Court, drawing heavily upon the submissions provided by the parties, intervenors and amici. The Remedial Plan will be implemented in preparation for the May 15, 2018 primary election. View "League of Women Voters of PA et al v Cmwlth et al" on Justia Law

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Petitioners alleged the Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act of 20112 (the “2011 Plan”) infringed "upon that most central of democratic rights – the right to vote." Specifically, they contended the 2011 Plan was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. After review of this matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that 2011 Plan violated Article I, Section 5 – the Free and Equal Elections Clause – of the Pennsylvania Constitution. View "League of Women Voters of PA v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Appellant James VanDivner appealed the Court of Common Pleas’ denial of his petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed this case following two remands to the PCRA court for supplemental opinions. In response to the PCRA court’s second supplemental opinion, Appellant requested, and was granted, permission to file a supplemental brief. Although also permitted to do so, the Commonwealth did not file a brief in response. Appellant was convicted in the death of his fiancée, Michelle Cable. Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty, contending he was intellectually disabled and, thus, imposition of the death penalty would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court conducted a four-day hearing, after which it determined that Appellant failed to establish that he was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court concluded Appellant was intellectually disabled, and, thus, ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Accordingly, appellant’s death sentence was vacated and judgment of sentence was modified to reflect the imposition of a life sentence on his first-degree murder conviction, subject to appellate review of his remaining guilt phase and sentencing claims. Moreover, as this matter was now a noncapital case, the Supreme Court transferred this appeal to the Superior Court for disposition of these remaining claims. View "Pennsylvania v. VanDivner" on Justia Law

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Appellant James VanDivner appealed the Court of Common Pleas’ denial of his petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed this case following two remands to the PCRA court for supplemental opinions. In response to the PCRA court’s second supplemental opinion, Appellant requested, and was granted, permission to file a supplemental brief. Although also permitted to do so, the Commonwealth did not file a brief in response. Appellant was convicted in the death of his fiancée, Michelle Cable. Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty, contending he was intellectually disabled and, thus, imposition of the death penalty would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court conducted a four-day hearing, after which it determined that Appellant failed to establish that he was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court concluded Appellant was intellectually disabled, and, thus, ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Accordingly, appellant’s death sentence was vacated and judgment of sentence was modified to reflect the imposition of a life sentence on his first-degree murder conviction, subject to appellate review of his remaining guilt phase and sentencing claims. Moreover, as this matter was now a noncapital case, the Supreme Court transferred this appeal to the Superior Court for disposition of these remaining claims. View "Pennsylvania v. VanDivner" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth charged Appellee Alwasi Yong with a number of drug and firearms offenses including possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance (PWID), firearms not to be carried without a license, persons not to possess a firearm, and criminal conspiracy to commit PWID. Yong filed an omnibus pretrial motion in which he sought the suppression of physical evidence resulting from his seizure and arrest. Specifically, Yong argued his mere presence at the subject residence of the search warrant was insufficient to justify a protective pat-down frisk. Yong further argued police lacked probable cause to arrest him. The trial court held a suppression hearing at which an investigating officer testified to the three-day surveillance of the property and the execution of the search warrant. The Commonwealth did not introduce the search warrant into evidence. The specific issue presented in this case for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether an investigating officer’s knowledge of facts sufficient to create probable cause to arrest could be imputed to a second officer, who arrests the suspect, when the two officers are working as a team, but there was no evidence the investigating officer with probable cause directed the arresting officer to act. Under the version of the “collective knowledge” doctrine the Supreme Court adopted in this case, it concluded Yong’s arrest was constitutional. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Yong" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to assess what relief, if any, a criminal defendant is entitled to when he raises an illegal sentencing challenge premised on Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013) in a timely petition filed pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act when, at the time Alleyne was decided, the defendant’s judgment of sentence was not yet final. Appellee Phillip DiMatteo, entered into an open guilty plea to 56 counts of possession with intent to deliver (PWID) and one count each of criminal conspiracy and corrupt organizations. The charges stemmed from a drug operation in which DiMatteo and fourteen other individuals were involved in trafficking cocaine. Relevant to the issue, the Commonwealth sought imposition of the mandatory minimum sentence under 18 Pa.C.S. 7508 which set various mandatory minimum sentences for certain violations of The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, including PWID, predicated on the weight and classification of the controlled substance. The trial court imposed mandatory minimum sentences pursuant to Section 7508 on 55 counts of PWID, structuring its sentence, by ordering certain sentences to run concurrently and others consecutively, such that DiMatteo faced an aggregate sentence of fifteen to thirty years’ imprisonment. The sentencing court denied his motion for reconsideration. Five days after that denial, Alleyne was handed down, holding that any fact which, by law, increased the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime must be: (1) treated as an element of the offense, as opposed to a sentencing factor; (2) submitted to the jury; and (3) found beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that at the time DiMatteo entered into his open guilty plea, there was no “shared misapprehension” regarding the legality of the sentences that could be imposed, and there was no agreement or bargain between the Commonwealth and DiMatteo as to sentencing at all. The sentencing court did not impose its sentence under a misconception over what sentence it could impose under law. Alleyne rendered the mandatory minimum schemes with the defective judicial fact-finding procedure illegal. “This is not an occasion where a defendant and the Commonwealth bargained for a term of imprisonment, and the defendant reneged. . . . the remedy is a correction of the illegal sentence.” View "Pennsylvania v. Dimatteo" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Ernest Wholaver, Jr. appealed the dismissal of his petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). In July 2002, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with several sexual offenses for alleged conduct involving his two daughters, Victoria and Elizabeth. After the criminal charges were filed, Jean Wholaver (“Jean”), Elizabeth’s mother and Appellant’s wife, obtained a Protection From Abuse (“PFA”) order against Appellant on Elizabeth’s behalf. Among other things, the PFA order evicted Appellant from the family residence located in Middletown, Pennsylvania. As a result of this order, Appellant moved to Cambria County to live with his mother, father, and younger brother, Scott Wholaver (“Scott”). Shortly after midnight on December 24, 2002, Appellant and Scott drove from their home in Cambria County to Jean’s residence in Middletown. Scott waited in the vehicle while Appellant forcibly entered the home, where he shot and killed Jean, Victoria, and Elizabeth. Nine-month old Madison was relatively unharmed, but remained unattended until the bodies were discovered nearly 28 hours later. Police arrested Appellant and charged him with, inter alia, three counts of first-degree murder. He ultimately received the death penalty. Appellant raised a "multitude of issues" that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found none of which had merit. Therefore, the Court affirmed dismissal of his petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Wholaver" on Justia Law