Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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Appellant Scott Bishop was a parolee. During a home visit in March 2015, a parole agent performed a drug test, which indicated that methamphetamine was present in Appellant’s urine. Appellant was handcuffed and asked whether the agent would find anything in the residence that would violate parole conditions. Appellant then admitted that he had a firearm in a hallway closet. The agent proceeded to the closet, where he found a revolver, marijuana, electronic scales, and packaging materials. Appellant argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should interpret the provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution conferring upon individuals a right against self-incrimination to provide greater protection than the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Commonwealth countered that this claim was not properly preserved. In terms of efforts by criminal defendants to raise claims for departure from federal constitutional jurisprudence on independent state grounds, the the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth was correct that the precedent of the Pennsylvania Court required that some analysis explaining the grounds for departure was required. Because Appellant did not distinguish between the federal Fifth Amendment and Pennsylvania Constitution Article I, Section 9 before the suppression court, his claim favoring departure was waived. Furthermore, Appellant also waived the claim for additional protection under the state constitution in the Superior Court, since he did not develop any supportive reasoning before that court either. View "Pennsylvania v. Bishop" on Justia Law

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Appellant Dynan Turpin was arrested and charged with, inter alia, three counts of possession of a controlled substance, and one count each of conspiracy to commit possession with the intent to deliver and receiving stolen property. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a search warrant for an entire multi-bedroom residence shared by appellant and his roommate, Benjamin Irvin, was constitutionally permissible under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution even though the warrant was premised solely on the activity of Irvin. After review, the Supreme Court concluded police had probable cause to search the entire residence and therefore the warrant was constitutionally permissible. View "Pennsylvania v. Turpin" on Justia Law

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Christian Ford was charged with DUI and drug possession charges stemming from three separate arrests. The first, Ford was arrested for DUI and one count of driving with a suspended license. Ford subsequently failed to appear for his preliminary hearing on those charges, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Six months after Ford’s failure to appear at his preliminary hearing on the DUI charges, two police officers spotted Ford at a grocery store. After confirming that Ford had an active bench warrant, the officers approached him in the parking lot, but he fled on foot. When the officers eventually caught Ford, he continued to resist, and substantial force was required to effectuate the arrest. A search incident to arrest revealed that Ford had 159 stamp bags of heroin and a digital scale in his possession. He was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance (“PWID”), possession of drug paraphernalia, and resisting arrest. Ford posted bail ten days later and again was released from custody. A few weeks after posting bail, Ford went missing. A bail bondsman returned him to prison; the bondsman noticed that Ford was carrying a stamp bag of heroin and a syringe, leading to more drug possession charges. Ford entered into a negotiated guilty plea agreement, which disposed of all three of his criminal cases. The trial court accepted Ford’s guilty plea and sentenced him accordingly. In a petition for post-conviction relief, Ford alleged he could not pay the fines associated with his plea agreement, and that his inability to pay those fines would prevent him from being paroled. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the Sentencing Code mandated trial courts “shall not sentence a defendant to pay a fine unless it appears of record that the defendant is or will be able to pay” it. The question presented in Ford’s post-conviction appeal was whether the Sentencing Code’s ability-to-pay prerequisite was satisfied when a defendant agrees to pay a given fine as part of a negotiated guilty plea agreement. The Court held that it was not, and that a defendant’s mere agreement to pay a specific fine did not constitute evidence that he was or would be able to satisfy the financial obligation. Therefore, the case was remanded for the trial court to make findings on Ford’s ability to pay. The sentence was vacated in its entirety. View "Pennsylvania v. Ford" on Justia Law

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In 2015, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) set up a commercial vehicle inspection program authorized by Subsection 4704(a)(2) of the Vehicle Code. The inspection program was scheduled approximately one month in advance and occurred at a Clinton County landfill located in the Village of McElhatten. Appellant Jeffrey Maguire’s truck was stopped at the checkpoint by Pennsylvania State Police. The trooper conducted a “Level Two” inspection, which included a review of Appellant’s documents and a walk-around inspection of the truck, checking its lights, horn, wipers, tires, and wheels. During the course of this conversation, the trooper detected the smell of alcohol on Appellant’s breath. Following the inspection, the trooper had Appellant exit the truck, told him that he smelled of alcohol, and asked whether he had been drinking. Appellant stated that he drank one beer on his trip to the landfill. At that point, the trooper noticed a cooler on the floor of the truck near the gearshift, the contents of which were a yellow plastic bag that was wet from ice, three twelve-ounce cans of beer, and one or two bottles of water. Appellant failed field sobriety testing. Appellant was arrested, transported to the Jersey Shore Hospital for blood testing, and ultimately charged with several counts of driving under the influence (“DUI”), as well as five counts of unlawful activities. In Commonwealth v. Tarbert, 535 A.2d 1035 (Pa. 1987) (plurality), and Commonwealth v. Blouse, 611 A.2d 1177 (Pa. 1992), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted guidelines for assessing the constitutionality of government-conducted systematic vehicle checkpoints to which the entirety of the public are subjected. Before the Court in this case was the issue of whether the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines were applicable to statutorily authorized warrantless inspections of commercial vehicles. The Court determined they were not: such inspections should be scrutinized in accord with the test outlined by the United States Supreme Court in New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691 (1987), adopted in Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Petroll, 738 A.2d 993 (Pa. 1999). Because a panel of the Superior Court, in a two-to-one majority decision, reached the correct result, the Supreme Court affirmed that court’s judgment, which reversed a trial court’s order granting appellant’s motion to suppress evidence. View "Pennsylvania v. Maguire" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Appellant Darnell Foster entered a negotiated guilty plea to charges of possession of and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. The trial court sentenced him to four years of probation. In 2016, Foster’s probation officer detained him because of several photographs posted on appellant’s social media accounts in the preceding three months. The photographs depicted guns, drugs, large amounts of money and his sentencing sheet from his plea agreement, along with captions that he posted with some of the pictures. The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by this case asked for a determination of what constituted a permissible basis for a court to find an individual in violation of probation (“VOP”). The pertinent language of the relevant statutes required orders of probation include “specific conditions” to help the defendant to achieve the general condition of leading a “law-abiding life,” and a finding that a defendant violated a “specified condition of the probation” to support its revocation. The Supreme Court concluded that the VOP court must find, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that the probationer violated a specific condition of probation or committed a new crime to be found in violation. Absent such evidence, a violation of probation does not occur solely because a judge believes the probationer’s conduct indicates that probation has been ineffective to rehabilitate or to deter against antisocial conduct. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court, vacated to VOP court’s orders, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Foster" on Justia Law

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Appellant Leeton Jahwanza Thomas (a.k.a. “Pie” Thomas) was found guilty by jury of two counts of first-degree murder for the stabbing deaths of Lisa Scheetz and her minor daughter, H.S., one count of attempted murder for stabbing P.S., another minor daughter of Ms. Scheetz, and one count of burglary. After finding a number of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determining the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, the jury returned two verdicts of death. The trial court formally imposed two death sentences, plus a sentence of 20 to 40 years’ imprisonment for attempted murder and 3 to 6 years’ imprisonment for burglary. Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic; after review, the Court affirmed the judgment of sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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In the early morning hours of July 4, 2008, Appellant Wendell Jones' former girlfriend, Sonsiarae Watts, and her boyfriend, Dahl Palm, were shot to death inside Watts’ home. After a grand jury investigation, Appellant was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as well as burglary and a firearms offense. At his trial, Appellant testified he was at home alone watching television or sleeping on his couch when the crimes occurred. His counsel did not request an alibi instruction and the court did not give one. The jury convicted Appellant on all charges. The court imposed consecutive life sentences for the murders, a consecutive term of incarceration on the burglary charge, and no further penalty for the firearms violation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this post-conviction matter to consider whether Appellant was entitled to a new trial, because counsel failed to request that the jury receive an alibi instruction or object to the trial court’s failure to give one. After review, the Supreme Court held Appellant did not demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a reasonable probability the outcome of the proceeding would have been different had an alibi instruction been given to the jury. Thus, counsel’s failure to request such an instruction or to object to the lack of one did not undermine the Court's confidence in the jury’s verdicts. That being the case, Appellant was not entitled to a new trial. View "Pennsylvania v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Appellee Jerome King sought post-conviction relief, claiming, inter alia, that he was entitled to a new trial because his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. In connection with this petition, Appellee submitted to the PCRA court a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from privately interviewing his trial counsel, who allegedly refused to cooperate with Appellee’s attempt to prepare for PCRA litigation and, instead, was collaborating with the Commonwealth. The PCRA court entered an order granting the motion, and the Superior Court affirmed that order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether the lower courts correctly concluded that the Commonwealth should be prevented from privately interviewing a PCRA petitioner’s trial counsel under the circumstances presented in this matter. After review, the Supreme Court held that, given the circumstances relevant to this appeal, the PCRA court did not abuse its discretion by barring the Commonwealth from privately interviewing trial counsel. Consequently, it affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. King" on Justia Law

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In July 2016, Appellant Markease Cousins was arrested on an active bench warrant. A search incident to arrest revealed that Appellant had in his possession 1.75 grams of cocaine. As a result, Appellant was charged with, and convicted of, possession of a controlled substance. As the conviction constituted a violation of Appellant’s probation for a prior conviction for conspiracy to commit burglary, the trial court sentenced Appellant to a term of one to five years incarceration for violating his probation. With regard to Appellant’s new conviction for possession of a controlled substance, the trial court imposed an additional sentence of one to three years incarceration based on the pre-sentence report which indicated Appellant had previously been convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Specifically, the trial court applied the enhanced sentencing provision of 35 P.S. section 780-113(b). In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court’s application of the enhanced sentencing provision in 35 P.S. sections 780-101 et seq. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court’s decision was correct, and, thus, affirmed its order. View "Pennsylvania v. Cousins" on Justia Law

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Following his arrest on suspicion of DUI in May 2015, appellant Thomas Bell was transported to the Lycoming County DUI Center. There, a detective read the PennDOT DL-26 form to appellant and he refused to submit to a blood test. Appellant was subsequently charged with DUI — general impairment, and a summary traffic offense for failing to use required lighting. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss, arguing he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and thus evidence of his refusal should be suppressed and the DUI charge dismissed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether Section 1547(e) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. §1547(e), which expressly allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence at trial that a defendant charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) refused to submit to chemical testing, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Supreme Court concluded the evidentiary consequence authorized by Section 1547(e) was constitutional, and affirmed the order of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Bell" on Justia Law