Com v. DiMatteo: PCRA petitioner entitled to new sentence where SCOTUS change occurred before his sentence was final
Commonwealth v. DiMatteo resolves an obscure overlap in sentencing rules in Pennsylvania, confirming that a Defendant is entitled to resentencing where he was not sentenced on his open plea before a SCOTUS decision established that the ultimate sentence he would receive was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rules unanimously that a PCRA petitioner is entitled to resentencing because Alleyne v. United States was decided by SCOTUS before Dimatteo was sentenced. This holding resolves an ambiguity that arose where the Court had already held that 1) Alleyne is not “retroactive” to those whose sentences were decided before Alleyne was handed down; and 2) negotiated guilty pleas cannot later be challenged on the basis that the sentence is illegal because the prosecution is entitled to the benefit of its bargain.
Alleyne ruled that an aggravating factor that results in a longer sentence must be found by a jury, not by a judge. At issue in this case is 18 Pa.C.S. § 7508 (“Drug trafficking sentencing and penalties”), which allowed for aggravated penalties depending on the weight of the drugs, which weight was to be determined by the sentencing judge.
Another issue addressed here is whether a sentence that is unconstitutional presents a cognizable claim under the PCRA, which only recognizes a claim for sentences that are “
Majority by Mundy: An Illegal Sentence Can be Addressed by a timely PCRA petition
Justice Mundy, writing for five members of the unanimous Court, holds that DiMatteo is entitled to have his unconstitutional sentence revoked, and to be resentenced. Mundy notes that an open plea is different from a negotiated guilty plea, which the Court had previously said should be upheld in a post-sentence challenge. After all, if the Defendant knowingly accepted a sentence on the longer end of the range, purportedly aware of the change in the law, he should not get to challenge that sentence later.
But an open plea is different. An open plea should not result in an unconstitutional sentence. DiMatteo gets a new sentence, and the Court agrees that § 7508 is unconstitutional under Alleyne. Furthermore, despite the fact that PCRA petitions are limited to essentially eight enumerated grounds, an illegal sentence can always be addressed if the PCRA petition is timely under the “greater than the lawful maximum” power of PCRA courts.
Concurrence by Baer: Commonwealth’s argument unsupported by the record
Justice Baer concurs, arguing that because PCRA petitions are the “sole means by which to obtain collateral relief” in Pennsylvania, “a claim generally challenging the legality of a sentence is cognizable under the PCRA.” In addition, Baer addresses the Commonwealth’s argument that its withdrawal of other charges was consideration for DiMatteo’s open plea, and that the plea should be considered “negotiated” on this basis. Baer finds this argument unsupported in the record.
Conclusion: Open Pleas Really Do Have Benefits
Open pleas are typically risky for defendants—they leave discretion in the trial court’s hands, and leave the defendant with little recourse on appeal if the judge lays down the hammer. In this unusual case, the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt because of his open plea. This case will have further-reaching effects than one might think at first glance. This isn’t just about Alleyne. It lays out an avenue for relief to anyone who sees a major SCOTUS case alter the landscape, even at the last moment.