Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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Appellant Donald Tedford was convicted of first-degree murder and rape on February 6, 1987. He appealed the dismissal of his second petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), on December 2, 2014, as amended by a counseled petition on May 5, 2015, and a supplemental petition filed on June 9, 2015. In connection with his initial filings, Tedford sought wholesale discovery of the prosecution’s entire file, but the PCRA court concluded that the petition (as amended) was not timely filed. Tedford also appealed the PCRA court’s order denying his supplemental PCRA petition, in which he requested discovery, an evidentiary hearing, and/or a new trial based upon the admission of expert testimony presented at trial related to microscopic hair analysis. The PCRA court concluded that pursuant to PCRA Section 9545(b)(1)(ii), it had jurisdiction to consider the merits of Tedford's newly-discovered-facts claims, but ultimately it concluded Tedford had not asserted a meritorious claim in accordance with Section 9543(a)(2)(vi). Finding no reversible error in that analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the petition for relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Tedford" on Justia Law

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The trial court granted Timothy Trahey’s motion to suppress the results of a blood test that revealed his blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”), finding no justification for the investigating officers’ failure to obtain a search warrant before conducting the test. On the Commonwealth’s appeal, the Superior Court reversed, opining that the Commonwealth’s evidence sufficiently established the existence of exigent circumstances, thus excusing the absence of a warrant. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding that while the exigency analysis is an objective one, "even disregarding the officers’ subjective motivations, or their candid acknowledgment that they would have obtained a search warrant if they thought it necessary, there was no time-sensitive need to conduct a warrantless blood test under the circumstances of this case. Accordingly, the Superior Court’s conclusion that the test was justified by exigent circumstances was drawn in error." View "Pennsylvania v. Trahey" on Justia Law

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In August 2015, a deputy sheriff conducted a vehicle stop of Appellant Victor Copenhaver’s pickup truck. Upon approaching the truck, the deputy noticed an odor of alcohol and marijuana emanating from the passenger compartment. After administering field sobriety tests, he arrested Appellant for suspected driving under the influence of alcohol and controlled substances (“DUI”). Appellant was ultimately charged with DUI and other offenses. Appellant challenged the deputy’s authority to conduct a traffic stop and sought suppression of all evidence obtained during the encounter. Rather than presenting testimony at a suppression hearing, the parties stipulated that Appellant was driving the vehicle in question and that the deputy had training and qualifications equivalent to that of a police officer. The parties also agreed that the vehicle stop occurred as a result of the deputy observing the tailgate to the pickup truck being in a down position, which caught the deputy's attention. The deputy further observed the registration on the pickup truck was expired, and additionally, the registration number was identified as belonging to a vehicle other than the one on which it was attached. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the deputy could lawfully conduct the traffic stop based on the expired registration sticker, on a theory that such a violation amounts to a breach of the peace. The Supreme Court concluded driving a vehicle with an expired registration did not entail a breach of the peace. It vacated the superior court's order insofar as it held that the expired registration was a breach of the peace, thus alone authorizing the deputy to stop Appellant's vehicle. Notably, in light of its holding, the Supreme Court found the superior court did not proceed to consider other relevant questions, such as whether the parties’ factual stipulation should have been read as indicating that the officer’s understanding that the registration sticker was associated with a different vehicle arose in the pre-stop timeframe – consistent with the Commonwealth’s position throughout this litigation. "These issues should be resolved in the first instance by the intermediate court on remand." View "Pennsylvania v. Copenhaver" on Justia Law

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California law enforcement officers interviewed Appellant Stacy Britton in her California residence and, unbeknownst to her, recorded those interviews. Over Appellant’s objection, Pennsylvania used those recordings as evidence to help convict Appellant of murder in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to examine whether the California law enforcement officers were acting as agents of the Pennsylvania State Police when they recorded the interviews with Appellant in her California home, and if so, whether Pennsylvania's constitutional and statutory protections were available to Appellant under those circumstances. The Court concluded the California law enforcement officers were not acting as agents of the Pennsylvania State Police when they interviewed Appellant, making analysis of whether any Pennsylvania-specific constitutional or statutory protections unwarranted. Because the Supreme Court concluded the Pennsylvania trial court reached the proper result in this matter, it affirmed that court's judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. Britton" on Justia Law

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Petitioners were four Pennsylvania businesses and one individual who sought extraordinary relief from Governor Wolf’s March 19, 2020 order compelling the closure of the physical operations of all non-life-sustaining business to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (“COVID-19”). The businesses of the Petitioners were classified as non-life-sustaining. In an Emergency Application for Extraordinary Relief, Petitioners raised a series of statutory and constitutional challenges to the Governor's order, contending the Governor lacked any authority to issue it and that, even if he did have such statutory authority, it violates various of their constitutional rights. Petitioners asserted the exercise of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s King’s Bench jurisdiction was not only warranted but essential given the unprecedented scope and consequence of the Executive Order on businesses in the Commonwealth. Exercising King's Bench jurisdiction, the Supreme Court concluded Petitioners could not establish any constitutional bases for their challenges. The claim for relief was therefore denied. View "Friends of Danny DeVito, et al v. Wolf" on Justia Law

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On September 20, 2010, at age of 13 appellant, H.R., was adjudicated delinquent for indecent assault of a complainant less than 13 years of age. Appellant was placed on official probation and, pursuant to Section 6352 of the Juvenile Act, was ordered to undergo inpatient treatment at a sex offender residential treatment facility. Appellant remained in treatment when he turned 20 in February 2017 and he was assessed pursuant to Section 6352, the results of which found that involuntary treatment at a sex offender residential treatment facility pursuant to the Court-Ordered Involuntary Treatment of Certain Sexually Violent Persons Statute (Act 21) was still necessary. On January 4, 2018, following a hearing, a trial court denied appellant's motion to dismiss and granted the petition for involuntary treatment, determining appellant was an sexually violent delinquent child (SVDC) and committing him to one year of mental health treatment. On appeal, appeal, appellant argued: (1) Act 21 was punitive in nature, and this its procedure for determining whether an individual was an SVDC was unconstitutional; and (2) retroactive application of amendments to Act 21 made effective in 2011, was also unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the superior court correctly determined the relevant provisions of Act 21 were not punitive, were constitutional, thus, affirming the trial court's order. View "In re: H.R." on Justia Law

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Appellee William Housman petitioned for post-conviction relief, and appealed when that relief was denied. Housman was accused of murdering Leslie White in 2000. He was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, kidnapping, theft by unlawful taking or disposition, unlawful restraint, abuse of a corpse, and criminal conspiracy. The Commonwealth sought the death penalty for Housman and his co-defendant, his former girlfriend, Beth Ann Markman. The Commonwealth appealed the PCRA court’s grant of a new penalty-phase trial, and Housman cross-appealed the court’s denial of guilt-phase relief. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the record supported the PCRA court’s determination that Housman’s claim that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence at his penalty phase had arguable merit; that trial counsel’s performance lacked a reasonable basis; and that Housman suffered prejudice as a result of counsel’s ineffectiveness. Accordingly, with respect to the Commonwealth’s appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court’s grant of a new penalty trial. In light of the Court's affirmance of the PCRA court’s grant of a new penalty trial, the Court did not address Housman’s remaining penalty-phase claims. View "Pennsylvania v. Housman" on Justia Law

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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania challenged a superior court's application of United States v. Cronic, 466 U.s. 648 (1984) to find that trial counsel's failure to secure a Spanish language interpreter for appellee Miguel Diaz on the first day of his trial for charges relating to rape, rape of a child, endangering the welfare of children, statutory sexual assault, indecent assault, corruption of minors, and conspiracy. The argument was that failure in not securing a translator was prejudice per se because Diaz was not a native English speaker, and could not fully understand the proceedings. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that where the absence of a needed interpreter at a critical stage of trial obstructs his ability to communicate with counsel, Cronic applies such that the defendant need not prove he or she was prejudiced by a Sixth Amendment violation. Based on the record, the Supreme Court found the Superior Court correctly concluded that Cronic was applicable and that no specific showing of prejudice was required because of the absence of an interpreter on the first day of trial during critical stages of the proceeding. View "Pennsylvania v. Diaz" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether the procedure used to designate certain individuals convicted of sexual offenses as sexually violent predators (SVPs), codified at 42 Pa.C.S. section 9799.24(e)(3), was constitutionally permissible in light of the Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Muniz, 164 A.3d 1189 (Pa. 2017). The Superior Court extrapolated from our decision in Muniz to hold the lifetime registration, notification, and counseling requirements (RNC requirements) applicable to SVPs pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. sections 9799.15, 9799.16, 9799.26, 9799.27, and 9799.36 were increased criminal punishment such that the procedure for conducting SVP determinations violated the requirements of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) and Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held RNC requirements did not constitute criminal punishment and therefore the procedure for designating individuals as SVPs under 9799.24(e)(3) was not subject the requirements of Apprendi and Alleyne, and remained constitutional. View "Pennsylvania v. Butler" on Justia Law

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Thirty years ago, Appellee Otto Young was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison after he was convicted of aggravated assault, burglary, terroristic threats, and conspiracy. He was repeatedly released on parole and his parole was repeatedly revoked. On three occasions, the revocations were due to crimes that Young committed while at liberty on parole. This case presented a straightforward issue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review, namely whether the Board of Probation and Parole (the “Board”) had the statutory authority to rescind a previous grant of credit for time spent at liberty on parole. The Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth Court’s determination that the Board lacked any such statutory authority and thus affirmed its order. View "Young v. PA Board of Probation & Parole" on Justia Law