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Posted by on Apr 29, 2017 in Constitutional Provisions, Criminal, Probation and Parole | 0 comments

Pittman v. Pa. Bd. of Probation and Parole: Board Abused its Discretion by Failing to Use Discretion

The Parole Violation statute requires the Board of Probation and Parole to use its discretion when considering whether to credit “time at liberty on parole” to a convicted parole violator’s re-sentencing for the underlying crime, the Supreme Court has ruled in Pittman v. Pa. Bd. of Probation and Parole. Furthermore, the Board must explain its decision in order to provide an opportunity for effective appellant review.

Kevin Pittman was sentenced in 2010 for a Possession With Intent to Distribute, and was paroled a year later. While on parole, Pittman committed another crime, which brought him before the Board. The Board checked a “No” box in answer to the question “Credit time spent at liberty on parole” on a form, and when pressed for an explanation by Pittman via letter, the Board argued he had “automatically forfeited credit for all of the time that you spent on parole” by committing a subsequent crime. Pittman appealed to the Commonwealth Court for review, which affirmed en banc.

Baer for the Majority: Parole Board has discretion to award credit for time at liberty on parole, and must at least consider doing so

 The Parole Violation statute provides that the Parole Board “may, in its discretion, award credit . . . for the time spent at liberty on parole.” This provision “clearly and unambiguously grants the Board discretion” to award credit for time at liberty on parole. Thus, the Board erred when it said that Pittman “automatically forfeited” his time spent on parole. “[T]he Board abused its discretion . . . by concluding that it had no discretion,” Justice Baer said for the majority, reversing the Commonwealth Court and remanding to the Board to consider whether, in its discretion, Pittman should be credited with time he spent at liberty on parole.

The Court went further, ruling that the Board must produce more than a “Yes” or “No” checkbox on a form when rendering a discretionary decision. The majority held that this requirement, though not found in the statute, rested on three separate bases. First, Article V, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution grants citizens the right to an appeal from all administrative agency hearings to courts of record. Failing to provide any written reasoning for the Board’s decision threatened to turn this Constitutional appellate right to a “mere empty formality.” Second, “inherent notions of due process” demand a written explanation when a convicted parole violator is facing re-sentencing. Third, the General Assembly’s intent in passing the Parole Violation statute is best served by requiring a written opinion regarding a decision involving the Board’s discretion.

Saylor: This Decision is In Keeping with our Past Decisions on Parole Board Appeals

 Noting that the Court has previously ruled that parole revocation determinations are subject to the right to appeal, Chief Justice Saylor expressed concern in a brief concurrence that the majority opinion “may be read to diverge from this statutory requirement concerning the timing and/or content of written explanations by the Board.” Saylor offered no further explanation on this point, and was joined by Justice Todd in this opinion.

Mundy: Discretion Must be Exercised by the Board, but No Explanation is Required in the Statute

Arguing that the majority “insert[ed] new language” into the statute, Justice Mundy, joined by Justice Wecht, concurred in the result because the Board abused its discretion, but noted that nothing in the statute requires a written opinion. Noting that the Board is free to defend its decision in the appellate courts—as it did here—she argued that a written decision is not required by the statute or by practice in order for a meaningful appeal to take place.

Conclusion: The Board lost this one, right?

 The Parole Board loses this appeal on paper, but one always wonders what the Appellant wins in a case like this. For his pains, he receives the right to go back before the Parole Board, wounded by a rebuke by the Commonwealth’s highest tribunal, and beg for discretionary mercy. This time, the Board will be free to check “No” again, and will be sure to write an opinion as to why. Perhaps the Board will grant some mercy, now aware that it has broader latitude than it previously thought, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Pittman ends up in a much better situation now than before.

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Posted by on Apr 28, 2017 in Criminal, Direct Capital Review | 0 comments

Com v. Yandamuri: Direct Capital Appeal

Com v. Yandamuri was a direct capital appeal case pursuant to the Court’s responsibility to directly review all death penalty cases. In a botched baby-kidnapping-for-ransom attempt, Raghunandan Yandamuri, a non-citizen, knocked on the door of the home of friends, forced entry and threatened the grandmother with a four-inch knife. The grandmother struggled when Yandamuri grabbed the baby, and he stabbed Grandmother in the throat several times, killing her. He then stuffed a cloth in the baby’s mouth, bound the baby’s head with a towel (to keep the cloth in place), and then stuffed the child in a suitcase and left the suitcase in a sauna while he showered.

Yandamuri’s “plan,” such as it was, unraveled when he used an identifiable term for the parents known to only a small group of friends on the ransom notes strewn about the scene of the crime. He was in a casino when approached by security and asked if he would meet police in a hallway. He complied, and voluntarily accompanied the police to the station, and from there, the story is simple. He was repeatedly told he could leave at any time, and as his story changed, he finally was read Miranda rights, and he gave a full confession.

Yandamuri’s challenge to his conviction for first-degree murder is as weak as his plan for ransom. He challenged his “detention,” the admissibility of his confessions and claimed that “discrepancies” in the stories of the Commonwealth’s witnesses constituted “false evidence.” These arguments were flatly rejected.

Baer for the Majority: No Custodial Interrogation, Miranda not Required

Justice Baer, speaking for the majority upheld the conviction. Yandamuri’s first argument is that he was illegally arrested and detained. But the facts clearly demonstrated that he was first approached by private security guards at the casino where he was gaming, and he agreed to go with the guards, then with the police, and that he voluntarily remained with the police at the station in an unlocked room, even after repeatedly being reminded he was free to leave.

Second, Yandamuri argued that his confessions were coerced because he was not Mirandized early enough in the process. In determining whether a Defendant was in custodial interrogation such that Miranda warnings are required, the courts use an objective test, asking whether a reasonable person would have believed he was at liberty to terminate the police encounter under the circumstances. In this case, the officers’ repeated reminders that he was free to leave, their offer that he take breaks for food or to use the restroom, and the fact that Mr. Yandamuri had a master’s degree, implying high intelligence that makes it unlikely he was psychologically coerced.

The Court notes only two factors in his favor: Yandamuri is not a citizen, and thus “may have been unfamiliar with police practices” here in America; and he was at the police station for thirteen hours before confessing—his final confession came early in the hours of the morning. But nothing else in the situation argued in favor of a coerced confession, and so the confession could be properly admitted.

Finally, the Court rejected Defendant’s argument that minor discrepancies in the testimony of witnesses for the Commonwealth constituted the presentation of “false evidence.” Discrepancies, by themselves, are not false evidence.

Conclusion: You Can Always Waive Your Rights

These cases are always heartbreaking—especially when they deal with a murdered baby, and a grandmother who tried, however futilely, to wrest the baby back from the kidnapper. This case provides little of interest to the practicing attorney, but reaffirms the basic principle that constitutional protections cannot be foisted on those who are not interested in preserving them. The evidence used to convict Yandamuri came largely from his own mouth.

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Posted by on Mar 14, 2017 in Criminal | 0 comments

Bill Cosby gets Allegheny Jury

The “Twelve Angry Men” who will be called upon to decide Bill Cosby’s fate in his pending rape trial will hail from Allegheny County, the Supreme Court decided yesterday. Under Pa.R.Crim.P. 584, the decision to change “venire” (that is, the county pool from which the jury will be selected) rests with the trial court hearing the case. This case is unusual in that the change of venire was consented to by both sides in order to facilitate moving forward quickly to trial.

Upon certification to SCOPA of an order to change venire, it rests with our Supreme Court to choose the appropriate county from which to draw the jury. It is unusual to see the Supreme Court comply with an “Order” from a lower court, yet that is precisely the situation under the rules.

The Court released no reasoning with its order yesterday for the selection of Allegheny County, but presumably, the press surrounding Mr. Cosby’s case is wide-spread enough, and his reputation sufficiently pervasive to make a lengthy list of strikes for cause. Allegheny, as the most populous county on the Western end of the state is the best suited to provide a sufficient number of jurors to choose from at the greatest distance from the actual trial.

Once chosen and impaneled, the jurors will be transported across the state at Montgomery County’s expense, and the Cosby trial will proceed.

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Posted by on Feb 22, 2017 in Criminal, Direct Capital Review | 0 comments

Com v. Smyrnes: Capital Appeal

The facts in this case are a repeat of those in Com v. Knight, and they are horrific enough not to bear repeating. Smyrnes appears to have been the ringleader of the conspirators described in the previous appeal. As a matter of both practice and public interest, this case hardly warrants a review, as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reviewed and affirmed all matters of the trial. Indeed, most of the points of review were deemed to have been waived by the Defendant, whose failure to object, and indeed, his endorsement of the trial court’s rulings led the Court to refuse further discussion of most of his objections.

Two points stand out, however: first, the Court takes a moment to caution prosecutors on “the value of restraint in scenarios involving potential prejudice connected with . . . non-essential evidence” such as photographs of victims. Here, the Commonwealth made limited use of a pre-injury photograph of the mentally disabled victim to demonstrate what she looked like before her hair was cut by the defendant.

This portion of the opinion represents a possible refinement on prior caselaw, which held that photographs of a victim may not be entered to prove an uncontested element of a crime, or to demonstrate a “victim’s character or physical abilit[y].” Com v. Rivers, 537 Pa. 394, 406-07 (1994). This is in keeping with Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 403, which requires a balancing of the unfair prejudice created by a piece of evidence with its probative value.

It is plain that the Court did not approve of the use of the photograph in this case, as it “was by no means essential to the prosecution to place this photograph before the jury.” The Court goes on to argue that it “had some relevance,” and to rest its decision on the Commonwealth’s “limited use” of the photo. Of course, “relevance” is only a baseline of admissibility under Pa.R.E. 402, and Rule 403’s balancing test is left unaddressed by the Court. It is hard to see how a photograph was necessary to prove that the victim’s hair was cut during the torture sequence preceding her murder, and a photograph proving that she once had long hair could hardly be argued to be probative. The Court more properly should have ruled this an error, but ruled it harmless and unprejudicial to the defense; however, the Court appears to be squeamish about admitting even a minor fault in a death penalty case that it has no intention of remanding for a new trial.

Second, the Defendant raised a novel argument that the aggravating factor of a murder “committed by means of torture” in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(8) could not be imputed to a conspirator who was not the “instrumentality of death.” The Defendant was found vicariously responsible for murder by virtue of his encouragement of the others, his leadership in the conspiracy to murder, and his malicious state of mind. But while the Defendant participated in the acts of torture, he did not give the final blows of the knife that killed the victim, and argued he could not properly be attributed with the aggravating circumstance of torture for the purpose of reaching a death penalty verdict. The Court notes that, although the active voice is required elsewhere in the aggravating factors statute, the passive voice referring to an offense “committed by means of torture” clearly demonstrates the propriety of the torture aggravator even when the Defendant was not the physical murderer.

Capital Appeals are statutorily-required of the Commonwealth’s High Court, to ensure that a sentence is not “the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor,” and to ensure that the aggravating factors were properly found by the jury. 42. Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3). The resulting opinions rarely make for interesting reading or for novel caselaw, but they serve an important role in ensuring the justice of executions.

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