PA Superior Court: Defendant Entitled to Less Stringent SORNA Registration Requirements Where Jury Did Not Find Specific Date of Offense

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case Commonwealth v. Alston. This decision reaffirms previous decisions that held that Sexually Violent Predator hearings under the original Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”) are unconstitutional. Further, in this case, the Superior Court ruled that where the defendant’s crimes could have occurred both before and after the enactment of SORNA and the jury has not made a specific determination as to the date of the offense, the defendant should be required to register under the less onerous version of the statute.  

Commonwealth v. Alston

The defendant was accused of sexually assaulting the complainant from May 28, 2009 to May 1, 2013. The complainant was eleven years old when the abuse began. The complainant’s sister eventually discovered the abuse and notified the police. After a three-day jury trial that began on February 10, 2016, the defendant was found guilty of a multitude of charges including: statutory sexual assault, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (“IDSI”), indecent assault, criminal use of a communication facility, unlawful contact with a minor and corruption of minors. Significantly, the jury did not specifically determine the dates on which the defendant committed these offenses.

The trial court sentenced the defendant to an aggregate term of 15 to 40 years’ incarceration. Additionally, because rape of a child and IDSI with a person less than 16 years old are both Tier III offenses under SORNA, the defendant was required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The trial court also held a Sexually Violent Predator hearing and determined that the defendant was in fact a Sexually Violent Predator and therefore subject to lifetime reporting requirements.

The defendant eventually appealed, and on appeal he raised one issue: whether the trial court improperly imposed a lifetime reporting requirement under the original SORNA statute following the SVP hearing?

What is an SVP?

A SVP is a sex offender who is deemed to have a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses. After someone is convicted of sexually violent offense in Pennsylvania, the court can order a SVP assessment to be conducted by the Sex Offender Assessment Board “SOAB”). The SOAB publishes its findings to the parties, and the court will then hold a hearing to determine whether the person is an SVP. It is noteworthy that the standard proof for these hearings is not beyond a reasonable doubt (the standard for criminal trials). Instead, it is the clear and convincing evidence standard, which is a much lower standard. The original SORNA statute allowed the judge to make the SVP determination instead of a jury, and the amended SORNA statute retains this defect.

What Happens if You Are Classified as an SVP?

If someone is deemed an SVP, the person is required to register with the Pennsylvania State Police for the rest of their life. Additionally, the individual is required to participate in monthly (at a minimum) sex offender counseling from a provider that is approved by the SOAB. Also, the local authorities will notify the community and provide the SVP’s name and address. This means that someone who was convicted of a Tier I Offense which may only require 15 years of registration could be required to register for life if they are found to be a Sexually Violent Predator.

Why Were SVP Hearings Ruled Unconstitutional?

In Commonwealth v. Butler, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that SVP hearings as provided for by SORNA are unconstitutional because they expose defendants to an enhanced criminal penalty without any requirement that the jury make the necessary findings beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the SVP procedures permitted the trial judge to make the ruling instead of a jury and because they used a lesser standard, the Butler Court found that the procedures were unconstitutional. The Butler Court held that the trial courts can no longer designate convicted defendants as Sexually Violent Predators or hold SVP hearings “until the General Assembly enacts a constitutional designation mechanism.”

Is There a New Version of SORNA?

Yes. In February of 2018, Governor Tom Wolf signed into law Act 10. Act 10 amended several provisions of SORNA and added new sections. Notably, Act 10’s Subchapters H and I addressed reporting requirements for sex offenders that committed their crimes on or after April 22, 1996, but before December 20, 2012. Subchapter I has less stringent reporting requirements than Subchapter H. Notably, Act 10 retained the “clear and convincing” standard for SVP hearings and there was not a “constitutional designation mechanism” in the statute either. Challenges to the new statute are ongoing. The Commonwealth and legislature, however, are defending the statute by arguing that because the reporting requirements are somewhat less stringent, the SVP designation no longer constitutes punishment. If it does not constitute criminal punishment, then the facts do not need to be found by a jury using the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. This argument seems unlikely to prevail, but it is always difficult to predict what the courts will do in these cases.  

The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s Decision

The Court held that the defendant should not have been deemed an SVP because the procedures for finding that someone is an SVP under the old version of SORNA remain unconstitutional and because the jury did not make a specific finding as to the dates on which the illegal sexual conduct occurred. Because the defendant’s alleged actions could have occurred both before and after SORNA’s effective date and the jury did not make a specific finding, the defendant was entitled to the benefit of the doubt because any ambiguity in criminal law generally must be resolved in favor of the defendant. Therefore, the Court ruled that he should be required to register under the newly-created Subchapter I of the amended SORNA statute. Therefore, the case was remanded to the trial court for the defendant to be advised of his new registration requirements and raise any challenges to those requirements. This opinion did not address the constitutionality of the amended SORNA statute, and that litigation is ongoing at this time.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Supreme Court: Police Cannot Legally Stop You Just For Carrying A Gun

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Hicks, holding that the police cannot stop someone just because they believe the person has a gun. This decision could affect hundreds of cases, especially in Philadelphia, where the police routinely stop people for carrying guns without any actual knowledge of whether that person may be carrying lawfully.

Commonwealth v. Hicks

On June 28, 2014, at approximately 2:30 A.M., a remote camera operator conducting live surveillance of a gas station and convenience store in Allentown, Pennsylvania notified police officers that a patron of the establishment was in possession of a firearm. The camera operator advised officers that the individual showed the firearm to another patron, put the firearm in his waistband, covered it with his shirt, and walked inside the convenience store. This individual eventually became the defendant. Notably, the defendant possessed a valid license to carry a concealed firearm, and he was not statutorily prohibited from possessing a firearm. Accordingly, on the morning in question and at the observed location, there was nothing unlawful about the defendant’s possession of the handgun nor the manner in which he carried it. It is also not illegal to show a gun to someone else (so long as you do not point it at them).

While responding officers were en route, the defendant entered and exited the convenience store and then reentered his vehicle. Before the defendant could exit the parking lot, numerous police officers in marked vehicles intercepted and stopped his vehicle. Believing that the defendant had moved his hands around inside the vehicle, one of the officers drew his service weapon as he approached the defendant’s vehicle and ordered him to keep his hands up. Other officers came and restrained the defendant and removed the firearm. The officers stated that there was an odor of alcohol emanating from the defendant. They then searched him and recovered a small amount of marijuana.

Because the defendant had a license to carry a firearm, he was not charged with any crimes relating to the firearm. However, he was charged with DUI, possession of a small amount of marijuana, and disorderly conduct. The defendant filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking suppression of the evidence. He also filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging that there was not sufficient evidence to hold him for trial on the charge of disorderly conduct. The trial court agreed and dismissed the disorderly conduct charge. However, the court denied his motion to suppress.

In denying his motion, the trial court stated that possession of a concealed weapon in public creates the reasonable suspicion justifying an investigatory stop in order to investigate whether the person is properly licensed. This was based on the Pennsylvania Superior Court decision in Commonwealth v. Robinson (this is also referred to as “The Robinson Rule”). After the motion, the defendant proceeded to a non-jury trial where the court found him guilty of one count of DUI and acquitted him of the remaining charges. He was sentenced to a term of incarceration of thirty days to six months and was assessed a monetary fine. The defendant subsequently filed an appeal. The Superior Court affirmed his decision. Like the trial court, the Superior Court focused mainly on The Robinson Rule and held that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. The defendant then filed an allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which was granted.

What is the Robinson Rule?

The Robinson Rule was a rule that provided that carrying a concealed firearm constituted per se reasonable suspicion authorizing the use of official force to seize an individual in order to investigate whether the person is properly licensed. In other words, if the police received information that you were in possession of a firearm you could be stopped, by force if necessary and without a warrant, and subjected to an investigation to determine whether or not you were lawfully allowed to possess the firearm.

For those of you familiar with the Terry doctrine, this seems out of place with it because possessing a firearm is often not illegal. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution allows for individuals to possess firearms. Because a Terry stop is only warranted when the officer has a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot (or in other words an objectively reasonable belief based on all of the facts known to the officer that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity). With Terry in mind, it seems peculiar that The Robinson Rule would be constitutional. This is what the defendant argued in his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Carrying A Gun Does Not Give Police Reasonable Suspicion

In its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court first analyzed several of its prior decisions and decisions from other jurisdictions that addressed the issue of whether the police can stop someone for possession of a firearm. For instance, the Court analyzed the decisions in Commonwealth v. Hawkins and Commonwealth v. Jackson, two cases that are routinely cited when litigating a motion to suppress a gun. In these decisions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court highlighted how its predecessors routinely dismissed the Commonwealth’s argument that the police can stop someone simply because they have information that they have a gun.

The Court also applied the Terry and its progeny of cases to the facts in the defendant’s case. Based on its analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that The Robinson Rule subverts the fundamental principles of Terry. The Court stated “[w]e find no justification for the notion that a police officer may infer criminal activity merely from an individual’s possession of a concealed firearm in public…it is not a criminal offense for a license holder…to carry a concealed firearm in public.” The Court further stated “[u]nless a police officer has prior knowledge that a specific individual is not permitted to carry a concealed firearm, and absent articulable facts supporting reasonable suspicion that a firearm is being used or intended to be used in a criminal manner, there is simply no justification for the conclusion that the mere possession of a firearm, where it lawfully may be carried, is alone suggestive of criminal activity.”

Finally, the Court analogized this to driving a car. It is obviously a requirement for someone to have a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle, however the police cannot stop every single person to ascertain this information. Because possessing a gun is legal, police are not allowed to stop every person to see if they have a license. Consequently, the Supreme Court found that the lower courts erred when denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Therefore, the Court remanded the case for the trial court to rule on whether police had any basis for stopping the defendant beyond his mere possession of a concealed weapon.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Superior Court: Improper Exclusion of Defendant's Family Members from Jury Selection Requires New Trial

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Jordan, holding that the trial court erred in refusing to permit the defendant’s family members to be present in the courtroom during selection. Because the trial court did not have sufficient reason to believe that the defendant’s family members were involved in any witness intimidation, the trial court violated the defendant’s right to a public trial by barring the family members from the courtroom. Therefore, the defendant will receive a new trial.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Jordan

In Jordan, the defendant was arrested and charged with Conspiracy, Attempted Murder, and other related charges for an incident which took place in Philadelphia. The defendant chose to proceed by way of jury trial, and he was eventually convicted by the jury and sentenced to 37.5 - 100 years’ incarceration. Although the defendant appealed on the sufficiency of the evidence, the Superior Court rejected this portion of the appeal.

More interestingly, however, the defendant also appealed the trial court’s order barring his family members from remaining in the courtroom during voir dire (jury selection). During jury selection, the defense attorney specifically objected to the defendant’s family being excluded from jury selection. He argued on the record that they did not cause any problems the previous day and that jury selection is part of the trial, and the law requires that criminal trials be public.

After the defense lawyer objected, the judge stated that on the previous day, a large group of people barreled into the courtroom in an intimidating manner. The judge did not know who they were, but she somehow knew that they were there on behalf of the defendants. The judge further stated that witnesses voiced their concerns about their safety. In previous cases, the judge had had problems with jurors feeling intimidated, and so the judge decided to bar everyone, including the defendant’s family, from watching jury selection.

In response, defense counsel argued that the defendant’s mother was in her mid-50’s and his step-father was in his mid-60’s and that they had not been a part of whatever problem had occurred the day before. Therefore, he requested that they be allowed to stay in the courtroom. The court denied the request and prohibited the defendant’s mother and step-father from remaining in the courtroom during jury selection.

The Right to a Public Trial

Following his conviction, the defendant appealed. In addition to arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction, he also argued that the judge violated his Sixth Amendment right by barring his family members from the courtroom during jury selection. Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has a right to a public trial. The right is for the benefit of the accused and ensures “that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned, and that the presence of interested spectators may keep his triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and to the importance of their functions.” In previous cases, the United States Supreme Court has held that the right to a public trial includes the right to have the public attend voir dire and view the jury selection.

Can the Judge Close the Courtroom to the Public in a Criminal Case?

Although the general rule is that a criminal trial should be public, the trial judge may close the courtroom under limited circumstances. In order to close a courtroom, the judge must properly find that:

1) there is an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,

2) the closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest,

3) there are no reasonable alternatives to closure, and

4) the court can make findings adequate to support the closure.

If these four requirements are not met, then the judge may not close the courtroom and must allow members of the public to view all portions of a criminal trial, including jury selection.

Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that “where trial courts perceive a threat to the orderly administration of justice in their courtrooms by an unmanageable public, they may always place reasonable restrictions on access to the courtroom, so long as the basic guarantees of fairness are preserved.” This means that a trial judge may be able to close a courtroom in response to legitimate security or intimidation concerns. However, even when overriding interests warrant closure, if the parties or the press petition the court to admit a limited number of specified individuals, the court must consider the request and place on the record the reasons for denying the request. This enables the appellate court to examine whether exclusion was justified.

In this case, the Superior Court rejected the trial court’s reasoning and found that the court failed to follow the above rules. Although the court may have been justified in barring large groups from the courtroom during jury selection due to intimidation concerns, the court failed to give any real consideration to whether allowing just the defendant’s parents to remain in the room would alleviate the intimidation concerns.

An exclusion of the general public does not necessarily warrant the same treatment as the exclusion of the defendant’s close family members or the press. Therefore, if the mother and father had participated in the previous day’s disturbance, the trial court may have been justified in excluding them. However, the judge did not make any findings as to whether the defendant’s mother and stepfather had done anything. Instead, the court unreasonably failed to consider whether permitting just them to remain would be a reasonable alternative to barring everyone from the room.

Improper Denial of the Right to a Public Trial Requires a New Trial

In most cases, a defendant who appeals a legal error made by the trial judge will not receive a new trial unless the defendant suffered some kind of prejudice as a result of the legal error. This means that the Commonwealth usually has the right to argue harmless error, which is the idea that a conviction may be upheld if the Commonwealth can show beyond a reasonable doubt that even without the mistake, the defendant would have still been convicted.

However, there are certain types of errors that automatically require a new trial without a consideration of prejudice. This type of error is called a “structural error” or “structural defect.” The violation of the right to a public trial constitutes a structural error that will always invalidate the conviction. In this case, the defendant’s family members were excluded from the courtroom in violation of his right to a public trial without any real consideration of whether that was absolutely necessary to avoid witness intimidation. Therefore, the court committed a structural error, and the defendant will receive a new trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or are under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, DUI, Aggravated Assault, Rape, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, and Homicide. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Superior Court: DUI Defendant May Call Expert Witness to Attack Validity of Field Sobriety Tests

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Taylor. In Taylor, the Superior Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for DUI because the trial court improperly prohibited the defendant’s expert witness from testifying that field sobriety tests have not been scientifically validated for use in detecting impairment due to drugs. This is an important decision for defendants who are facing DUI charges and who may not have submitted to a blood test because it may allow the defendant to use expert testimony to attack the validity of field sobriety tests. 

Commonwealth v. Taylor

The defendant was driving her car in York County, Pennsylvania with her 18-month-old child secured in the back seat.. She was driving twenty miles above the speed limit, and  when a traffic light in front of her turned red, the defendant abruptly braked and nearly rear-ended a stopped vehicle in front of her. A few seconds after the light turned green, the defendant rapidly accelerated her car over a nearby curb and crashed into a utility pole located about 100 feet from the road.

A motorist who saw the accident pulled over next to the defendant’s car and offered to help her. The defendant got out of her car and told the motorist that she was not injured. Thankfully, her child was also unharmed. While speaking with the motorist, the defendant attempted to shut her car door, but the motorist stopped it from shutting because it could have hit the child’s outstretched arm.

A local police officer arrived at the scene of the accident a few minutes later. He observed the defendant having blood shot eyes and slurred speech, but he did not smell alcohol on her. Per the officer, the defendant also appeared to be confused and very tired. The officer then had the defendant perform two standard field sobriety tests. He had her walk in a straight line and and then do a test involving walking and turning 180 degrees. According to the officer, the defendant performed poorly on the tests. She allegedly had trouble  balancing herself and following directions. The defendant’s body swayed during the tests, and she used her arms to keep steady. She also started the tests before being told to do so.

The officer arrested the defendant on suspicion of DUI and Endangering the Welfare of a Child (“EWOC”). While in custody, she admitted to taking Adderall and Xanax, but she could not provide the amounts taken or how long before the accident she had taken the medications. She denied having any injuries or medical conditions that could have affected her ability to operate a motor vehicle. At trial, the Commonwealth did not allege that the defendant was impaired by alcohol. Further, the Commonwealth did not introduce the results of any blood testing into evidence. Instead, the Commonwealth relied primarily on the arresting officer’s testimony regarding the defendant’s car accident and how she performed on the field sobriety tests. The officer testified at length regarding his expertise in administering those tests. Other than describing the scene of the accident, almost all of the officer’s testimony was focused on how poorly the defendant performed on the tests. He further testified that the defendant’s performance indicated impairment due to drug use.

The defense attributed the defendant’s performance to a possible head injury from the accident. Additionally, the defendant attempted to rebut the officer’s testimony with the opinion of its own expert witness, a medical toxicologist and physician. The doctor planned to testify that there was no scientific basis to rely on field sobriety tests to detect drug impairment because they have only been validated to reveal intoxication from alcohol. The trial court qualified the doctor as an expert in toxicology and on the scientific basis for field sobriety tests.

The doctor testified that he reviewed the defendant’s medical history and confirmed that she had been prescribed Xanax and Adderall. He also testified that after using the medication for 30 days, the medications should have little to no side effects. The defendant had been prescribed the medication for over 30 days prior to the accident, but there was no evidence regarding what dosages she took. However, when the doctor attempted to testify about field sobriety tests, the Commonwealth objected and the court sustained the objection. As such, the doctor could not testify about the utility of field sobriety’s tests in detecting drug impairment. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of DUI and EWOC. The defendant then filed post-sentence motions which were denied. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.

What is Expert Testimony?

Rule 702 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence governs expert testimony. Expert testimony is not relevant in every case. In other words, you cannot call an expert to claim that a witness is lying. It is only admissible when an expert has an opinion on a subject which requires knowledge, information, or skill beyond what is possessed by the ordinary juror. In criminal cases, expert witnesses are most often used in cases that involve some form of medicine or science. They are common in DUI cases and many motor vehicle cases.

In determining whether to qualify someone as an expert, courts are supposed to employ a liberal standard when determining if a witness qualifies as an expert in a particular field of study. The witness does not need to possess all of the knowledge in a given field, but the witness must possess more knowledge than is otherwise within the ordinary range of training, knowledge, intelligence or experience. Further, a witness does not need formal education to qualify as an expert, although it certainly helps. This case focused on whether a witness can testify as an expert witness without having practical, hands-on experience in the field. In this case, the trial court prohibited the doctor from testifying that the tests had not been validated for detecting drug usage because the doctor was not a police officer and had never performed the tests on someone himself.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court held that it was reversible error for the trial court to preclude the doctor’s testimony concerning field sobriety tests. As a preliminary matter, the Superior Court held that the doctor was qualified as an expert in this particular field and that the Commonwealth did not dispute any of these qualifications. Additionally, the Superior Court found that the  testimony would have gone to the heart of the issues in the defendant’s trial.

The Commonwealth was trying to prove that the defendant was impaired due to drug use, and prosecutors did not have any blood test results. They sought to prove intoxication by using the testimony of the officer and his observations of the defendant. They specifically sought to base a potential conviction on his observations of the defendant when she performed the field sobriety tests. If the doctor’s  testimony had been admitted, it could have rebutted the officer’s conclusion that the defendant was impaired by drugs. As a result of the judge’s preclusion of  the doctor’s testimony, the officer’s opinion on the defendant’s drug impairment went unchallenged. Therefore, this error in excluding the expert testimony resulted in significant prejudice to the defendant, and she will receive a new trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or are under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, DUI, Aggravated Assault, Rape, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, and Homicide. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.