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Posted by on Jan 31, 2018 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Com v. Wholaver: PCRA death penalty appeal yields nothing of interest

The unanimous Court rejected the arguments of a PCRA petitioner in Com v. Wholaver. As regular followers of the Court are aware, all death penalty cases result in a direct appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, even on collateral review. These cases often yield little of interest to the practitioner, and this case is such an example.

Wholaver challenged his conviction for murder on eleven different grounds, including inadequate assistance of counsel, a Brady violation, prosecutorial misconduct, striking a juror for cause, hearsay, and “corrupt and polluted source” instructions. Justice Baer does the yeoman’s work of laying out the exhaustive(ing?) arguments of the petitioner in this case, and reviews the law in each of these areas.

The “corrupt and polluted source” claim is the most interesting: where a conspirator to a crime is called at trial, the defendant may request an instruction to the jury explaining the unreliability of the testimony of a conspirator to the crime. Here the Court notes that the trial judge’s instructions on how to weigh credibility included discussion of plea deals of a witness discussed in evidence, and finds no error.

As always, this case is important as it reflects the Commonwealth’s dedication to ensuring that no one is wrongly convicted of murder; unfortunately, the opinion offers little beyond that in this case.

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Posted by on Jan 22, 2018 in Constitutional Provisions | 0 comments

League of Women Voters v. Com: Congressional Map Violates PA Constitution

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided today in a 4-3 per curiam decision that the congressional map drawn by the General Assembly is too partisan, and must be stricken because it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. “[T]he Court finds as a matter of law that the Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011 clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and, on that sole basis, we hereby strike it as unconstitutional.” The Court then enjoined the map’s use for the upcoming primaries.

The Court will draw a new map “on the evidentiary record developed int he Commonwealth Court” unless the General Assembly and Governor agree to another map on or before February 15, 2018. The Court will allow all parties “the opportunity to be heard” on the new map, and assures everyone that the primaries will go forward as scheduled. In complying with SCOPA’s order, “any congressional districting plan shall consist of: congressional districts composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”

Analysis: “sole basis”

The Court goes out of its way in the per curiam opinion to state that the Pennsylvania Constitution is the sole basis for its ruling. This makes the ruling unappealable, and makes it unlikely that SCOTUS’s ruling in Gill v. Whitford will have any impact on the map in Pennsylvania. If the ruling had merely been that the map was unconstitutional, the ruling could have been appealed unless it could be shown the Court’s ruling was on separate and independent state law grounds. SCOPA was apparently eager to avoid any delay in the implementation of this order, and made clear this ruling is a state law issue, only.

The Court does not elaborate on which provision(s) of the Constitution was violated, and in an unusual step, does not specify that a future opinion is forthcoming. The scant, three-page opinion may be all we ever have to go by in this case.

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Posted by on Jan 18, 2018 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Gerrymandering Oral Argument Roundup 1-18-18

Our roundup is all about Gerrymandering today.

The Allentown Morning Call covers the oral argument and provides quotes from political operatives on both sides. The Philly Inquirer gives a balanced look at the lawsuits possible outcomes. Reuters tacitly predicts a win for the League of Women Voters challenging the map, and HuffPost agrees. PennLive notes that it doesn’t matter whether the onlooker likes the congressional map or not; the suit turns on whether the constitution is implicated. As far away as Bryan, Texas (home of “The Good Life, Texas Style”), The Eagle picks up an AP story on the potential impact of our State Supreme Court’s ruling on the SCOTUS case still pending.

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Posted by on Dec 21, 2017 in Round-ups | 0 comments

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Round-up – 12-21-17

Two Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases get early coverage, while the other December releases remain quiet.

The Allentown Morning Call interviews the ACLU about Com v. $34,440 and the ongoing consideration of civil forfeiture law in Pennsylvania, an issue that’s sure to come back to the Court and maybe even the legislature in the near future.

Thomson Reuters covers SCF Consulting LLC v. Barrack Rodos, discussing the briefs and the difficult public policy determinations at play in the ongoing case. The Legal Intelligencer discusses the case’s procedural history and the views expressed by the lower court judges so far. This case will be watched in wider legal circles because it touches on legal ethics.

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Posted by on Dec 21, 2017 in Civil Forfeiture, Criminal | 0 comments

Com v. $34,440: Proximity to Drugs presumption may be rebutted in forfeiture proceeding

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania continues its consideration of the powers of civil forfeiture in a 5-2 decision that the “proximity to drugs” presumption in civil forfeiture proceedings may be rebutted by evidence that the seized property was not involved in any illegal activity.

Juan Lugo was pulled over for tailgating in a “borrowed” car with several friends in Monroe County (home of “The Tricky Triangle”). The officer who pulled Lugo over then smelled marijuana, obtained consent to search the car, and discovered ecstasy in the cigarette outlet, a small amount of marijuana by the rear passenger door, and the subject dollar amount in the “b-pillar” on the passenger side of the car.

Rafael Falette came forward claiming ownership of the vehicle, and claiming that the seized money was part of a personal injury settlement which he had withdrawn in cash and used to impress his friends. He produced settlement checks in nearly this amount, making his claim plausible, but the trial court granted the Commonowealth’s forfeiture petition because the proximity between the drugs and the money produces a statutory presumption that the money was involved in drug trafficking.

The controversy in this case was whether the effect of the statutory presumption should be irrebuttable or not. The statute provides for an “innocent owner” defense; is that the only way to rebut the presumption?

Majority by Baer: Entire Record’s Evidence Must be Considered

Justice Baer, writing for the 5-2 majority, rules that the presumption that arises from physical proximity of drugs is rebuttable regardless of whether the elements of the “innocent owner defense” are met. Thus, where evidence derived from the “entirety of the record” demonstrates that the money or other property had no actual connection to drug trafficking, the forfeiture petition should be denied.

The Court first ruled, however, that the discovery of property in close proximity shifts the burden to the defendant. Accordingly, it remains the defendant’s burden to adduce sufficient evidence to prove his innocence in regards to the property at issue. In this case, the Court vacated and remanded for further consideration, holding only that the trial court erred in refusing to consider evidence outside of the “innocent owner” defense.

Dissent by Saylor: No statutory grounds exists for this interpretation

Chief Justice Saylor dissents, arguing that no other statutory grounds exist outside of the innocent owner defense to rebut the presumption of guilt created by the statute.

Dissent by Mundy: Trial Court found Falette’s testimony incredible

Justice Mundy dissents, agreeing with the Chief Justice, and also noting that the trial court did not find Falette’s testimony about his personal injury settlement credible. Mundy would have ruled that the trial court’s assessment of the facts could not be disturbed, and that the judgment should stand on that basis.

Conclusion: Civil Forfeiture is Alive and Well

The legislature recently made modifications to and moved the civil forfeiture statute to a new section (now at 42. Pa.C.S. § 5802). The Court in this opinion was not asked to consider and does not question the constitutionality of the civil forfeiture process. This is the third case this year that the Court has taken on forfeiture, and twice it has asked serious questions about the validity of the overall scheme. In this case, the Court does not raise the same questions.

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