Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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Three disabled individuals who formerly received cash general assistance benefits from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare filed a complaint alleging that the manner in which the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted Act 80 of 2012, a piece of legislation which, inter alia, made sweeping changes to the administration of the state's human services programs, violated Article III, Sections 1, 3 and 4 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the Act was in violation of Section 4. The provisions of H.B 1261, P.N. 1385 were entirely removed from the bill by the Senate, inasmuch as they had been enacted by another piece of legislation, Act 22 of 2011. Since the original provisions were gone when the new provisions were added by the Senate, it was factually and legally impossible for the new provisions to work together with the deleted provisions to accomplish a single purpose. The Court held the amendments "to such enfeebled legislation" were not germane as a matter of law. Consequently, the Senate amendments were not germane to the provisions of H.B. 1261, P.N. 1385, and, accordingly, the three times that H.B. 1261, P.N. 1385 was passed by the House in 2011 could not count towards the requirements of Article III, Section 4. View "Washington, et al. v. Dept. of Pub. Welfare" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme COurt's review centered on the meaning of "merely corroborative or cumulative evidence" in the context of whether a new trial is warranted based on after-discovered evidence. Appellant Eric Small was identified as the shooter who killed William Price outside a nightclub in Harrisburg in 2011. No one saw the shooting, but witnesses saw appellant walking away from the club with his right arm around Price moments before the fatal gunshot. The defense argued Pedro Espada, appellant's friend who was also outside the nightclub just before the shooting, was the real shooter. In addition to circumstantial evidence, the Commonwealth presented some direct evidence of appellant's guilt through the testimony of two witnesses to whom appellant confessed about killing Price: two prison informants with whom appellant shared a cell at the Dauphin County Prison. The Supreme Court found it necessary to answer two preliminary questions central to the after-discovered evidence issue in this case: (1) did one of the witness affidavit and new testimony amount to a recantation; and (2) if so, then did the Post-Conviction Relief court believe that recantation to be true? Where appropriate, the Supreme Court has remanded matters involving after-discovered evidence claims for the PCRA court to make credibility determinations on the recanting witness testimony. Finding that the PCRA court "failed to mention, let alone pass upon" the credibility of the recantation testimony in its opinion, the Supreme Court found it necessary to remand this case for that determination. The Superior COurt's order was vacated and the case was remanded to the PCRA court for limited further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Small" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed this appeal to address the City of Philadelphia's so-called "soda tax." In June 2016, City Council enacted the challenged ordinance, which imposed a tax regarding specified categories of drinks sold, or intended to be sold, in the municipal limits. Appellants -- a group of consumers, retailers, distributors, producers, and trade associations -- filed suit against the City and the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Revenue, in the court of common pleas, challenging the legality and constitutionality of the tax and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The common pleas court differentiated the soda tax as a “non-retail, distribution level tax” and that the tax did not apply to the same transaction or subject as the state sales tax, thus, no violation of the "Sterling Act," Act of August 5, 1932, Ex. Sess., P.L. 45 (as amended 53 P.S. sections 15971–15973). A divided, en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed, the majority reasoning that in determining whether a tax was duplicative, the focus is upon the incidence of the tax; such incidence is ultimately determined according to the substantive text of the enabling legislation; and the concept of legal incidence does not concern post-tax economic actions of private actors. Because the City’s beverage tax and the state sales and use tax are imposed on different, albeit related, transactions and measured on distinct terms, the majority likewise concluded that the Sterling Act was not offended. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the Sterling Act conferred upon the City "a broad taxing power subject to preemption," while clarifying that “any and all subjects” are available for local taxation which the Commonwealth could, but does not presently, tax. The Commonwealth could, but did not, tax the distributor/dealer-level transactions or subjects targeted by the soda tax. "Moreover, the legal incidences of the Philadelphia tax and the Commonwealth’s sales and use tax are different and, accordingly, Sterling Act preemption does not apply." View "Williams v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on whether the trial evidence sufficed to support a conspiracy conviction, as well as derivative convictions for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possessing instruments of crime. The case started after a street fight into which additional persons entered. Richard Chambers' vehicle was blocking egress for Calvin Wilson. Wilson drove up on the curb and squeezed his vehicle past Chambers' Jeep without making contact with it. However, as he passed Chambers, “words were exchanged.” Wilson parked his car and approached Chambers, continuing to press Chambers as to why he and the Jeep were impeding access to the driveway. The two men walked toward each other as their verbal spat escalated. As Wilson got closer to the Jeep, he noticed at least two women inside. Finally, Wilson and Chambers met, and “fists were flying.” According to Wilson, Chambers threw the first punch and Wilson retaliated in kind to defend himself. Philadelphia police arrived to a "pile of people." Wilson was not charged, but Chambers was with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, possessing instruments of crime, simple assault and reckless endangerment. The Supreme Court held that, under the particular circumstances of this case, the Commonwealth did not meet its evidentiary burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Chambers was guilty of criminal conspiracy. Without a conspiracy, the evidence was similarly insufficient to prove Chambers guilty of conspiratorial liability, aggravated assault, and of possessing instruments of crime. Chambers' sentence was vacated, and the case remanded for resentencing on the remaining unchallenged convictions for terroristic threats, simple assault and reckless endangerment. View "Pennsylvania v. Chambers" on Justia Law

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J.B., a juvenile, appealed the Superior Court’s order affirming the juvenile court's order adjudicating him delinquent. J.B. was charged for the first-degree murder and homicide of an unborn child in connection with the shooting death of his stepmother inside their family home on the morning of February 20, 2009. J.B. argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication of delinquency beyond a reasonable doubt for these offenses, and, alternatively, that the juvenile court’s adjudication was against the weight of the evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's careful review of the evidentiary record in this matter compelled its conclusion that the evidence introduced at his adjudicatory hearing was indeed insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish his delinquency for these offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, the Court reversed the Superior Court’s order which affirmed the juvenile court’s order of disposition for these offenses. View "In The Interest of J.B.; Appeal of: J.B." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held previously that this Court held that a criminal defendant’s failure to appear at a trial scheduled within the time period provided by the speedy trial guarantee of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure constitutes a waiver of that defendant’s right to seek a remedy under that rule. In this case, the Court considered whether the "Steltz" waiver rule applied to a defendant who absented himself from an untimely trial—one that violated Rule 600 before the defendant failed to appear. The Superior Court determined that the Steltz rule applied without regard to the timeliness of the trial, and accordingly reversed the order of the Court of Common Pleas granting Darel Barbour relief under Rule 600. The Supreme Court concluded the Steltz rule was inapplicable. Consequently, the Court reversed the order of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Barbour" on Justia Law

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On December 9, 2012, appellant/cross-appellee Darnell Brown attended a party after hiding a revolver in the wheel well of a nearby parked automobile. At the party, Brown began arguing with Cory Morton (the victim). Marcus Stokes (co-defendant) retrieved the revolver and handed it to Brown, who fired four shots into the victim, killing him. Dr. Marlon Osbourne of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office performed an autopsy of the victim and prepared a report of his findings. The report concluded the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds and the manner of death was homicide. At the time of trial, Dr. Osbourne was no longer employed by the Medical Examiner’s Office and he was not called as a witness, but his report of the victim’s autopsy was admitted into evidence. The Commonwealth called Dr. Albert Chu of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, who had not been present at the autopsy, to provide expert testimony based on portions of the autopsy report as well as autopsy photographs. The issue on appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on the autopsy report, specifically, whether an autopsy report was testimonial in nature, such that the report’s author must appear as a witness subject to cross-examination at a criminal trial for murder when the report is introduced as evidence substantiating the cause of the victim’s death. The Supreme Court held admission of the autopsy report without testimony from its author was error in this case, but the error was harmless, and therefore affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Brown" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition for review in this matter to address whether the deadly-weapon-used sentencing enhancement applied to a defendant who was convicted of aggravated assault based on a motor vehicle accident, where the defendant acted recklessly but did not specifically intend to injure the victim. On the evening in question, Appellee drove to several bars and consumed alcohol. Appellee and three others got into Appellee’s car, with Appellee driving. While en route to purchase drugs, Appellee approached an area where pedestrians were intermittently crossing the street in a lighted crosswalk equipped with flashing warning lights. Appellee did not slow down as his vehicle approached, striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Appellee fled the scene without getting out of his car to check on the victim. At the time of the incident, Appellee was intoxicated and distracted by his passengers. There was no suggestion Appellee meant to strike the victim or even that he saw him until immediately before the collision. Thus, it was undisputed that his conduct in injuring the victim was criminally reckless but not knowing or intentional. The Commonwealth argued that the DWUE enhancement, by its plain text, applied whenever the use of a vehicle causes serious injury or death regardless of the driver’s specific intent. In reading the DWUE as it applied to a motor vehicle, the Supreme Court ultimately concluded that criminally reckless use of a vehicle for its ordinary purpose of transportation does not trigger an enhanced sentence notwithstanding that such recklessness results in serious bodily injury. The Court reached this conclusion based on the operative language of the DWUE when read in its immediate context. View "Pennsylvania v. Smith" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Commonwealth filed a single notice of appeal from an order that disposed of four motions to suppress evidence filed by four criminal defendants (Appellees) at four different docket numbers. The Superior Court quashed the appeal, ruling that the Commonwealth was required to file four separate notices of appeal from the suppression order in connection with each of the Appellees’ docketed criminal cases. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, as did the the Superior Court, the suppression order at issue here could affect one or more of the Appellees differently from the rest, including, for example, the remaining evidence (if any) against each Appellee that may be used at trial (which, in turn, may implicate whether all or some of the Appellees should be tried in a single joint trial). "The legal issues relating to suppression, e.g., the standing of each defendant to challenge the search and seizure, may also differ from one Appellee to the next. Given the clarification provided by the amendment to the Official Note, the proper practice under Rule 341(a) is to file separate appeals from an order that resolves issues arising on more than one docket. The failure to do so requires the appellate court to quash the appeal." Thus, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s order. The Court also held, however, that prospectively, where a single order resolves issues arising on more than one docket, separate notices of appeal must be filed for each case. View "Pennsylvania v. Walker" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this case to resolve a dispute over an affidavit of probable cause used in support of a search warrant application. Specifically, the issue reduced to whether a statement contained in one paragraph, which when read in the context of the whole affidavit appeared to be an inadvertent error, rendered the affiant’s information stale, and therefore lacking in probable cause. After review of the affidavit at issue here, the Supreme Court concluded it did not; the search warrant was not based on stale information and was supported by probable cause. Therefore, the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated, and the superior court’s order was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Leed" on Justia Law