Appeals

PA Superior Court Limits Collateral Estoppel Defense

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Defense Lawyer

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Defense Lawyer

Pennsylvania law provides a potential defense to some criminal charges called collateral estoppel. Collateral estoppel may apply to bar a second trial in limited circumstances where the defendant has been acquitted of closely related charges in a first trial. The doctrine is somewhat limited in Pennsylvania because juries are not asked to provide an explanation for what they think happened; instead, jurors simply find a defendant guilty or not guilty of charges. The defense may then argue that a re-trial should be barred because a defendant has been acquitted of charges which required the same conduct with which the defendant is again charged in order for the jury to find the defendant guilty in a second trial.

The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Commonwealth v. Winchester provides an example of this potential defense. In Commonwealth v. Winchester, the PA Superior Court found that the Commonwealth was not collaterally estopped from retrying a defendant for human trafficking charges after an acquittal for related robbery and theft charges because the human trafficking charges were significantly different from the related robbery and theft charges.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Winchester

In Winchester, prosecutors alleged that the defendant contacted the complainant on backpage.com. The complainant offered sexual services through an advertisement on this website. The defendant then also contacted the complainant through text messages to set up an appointment. When the defendant arrived at the complainant’s apartment, he was let inside. The complainant was wearing a robe when she answered the door.

When the complainant went to take off her robe, the defendant pulled out a gun and pointed it at her face. The defendant then threatened her with a weapon, zip-tied her, and stole $2,700 from her. The defendant then told her that she could have her money back if she worked for him. The defendant then left her residence and told her he would return by 11:30. After he left, the complainant was able to free herself, and she called the police. The defendant then returned and was promptly arrested. When he was arrested, zip ties were found in his car matching those used to restrain the victim.

The Commonwealth filed a criminal information charging the defendant with robbery, theft by unlawful taking, terroristic threats, trafficking in individuals, and attempted involuntary servitude. At the trial, the complainant testified to the above-stated facts. The defendant also testified. He testified that he and the complainant had a prior relationship and that his communications with her, after finding her on the website, was an effort to confirm his own suspicion that the complainant was prostituting herself. The defendant testified that he called her a “whore,” which upset the complainant. This, arguably, was the reason why the complainant made up these allegations against him. The defendant denied binding her, robbing her, or telling her that he would “pimp” her out. He also testified that the zip ties in his car were related to his construction work.

Following the trial, the jury found the defendant not guilty of robbery, theft by unlawful taking, and terroristic threats. The jury did not reach a verdict on trafficking in individuals and attempted involuntary servitude. On June 5, 2017, the defendant filed a motion for dismissal, arguing that the Commonwealth intended to retry him on the charges of trafficking in individuals and attempted involuntary servitude, but the trial court should apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel and dismiss the remaining charges. A hearing was held on June 26, 2017. On August 14, 2017, the court issued an order granting the defendant’s dismissal motion. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal.

What is Collateral Estoppel?

The doctrine of collateral estoppel is a part of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against Double Jeopardy. It is important to note that the collateral estoppel clause does not automatically bar subsequent prosecution of a defendant. It only bars the re-litigation of a particular issue that has already been decided by a court. What this means is that if an issue of law, fact, or evidentiary ruling has already been decided by a prior court order, the issue cannot be re-litigated in a future lawsuit.

In Pennsylvania, courts will apply the collateral estoppel doctrine if the following threshold requirements were met: 1) the issues in the two actions are sufficiently similar and sufficiently material to justify invoking the doctrine; 2) the issue was actually litigated in the first action; and 3) a final judgment on the specific issue in question was issued in the first action. For collateral estoppel purposes, a final judgment includes any prior adjudication of an issue in another action that is sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect. If the previous adjudication was based on a resolution of an issue in a manner favorable to the defendant with respect to a remaining charge, the Commonwealth is precluded from attempting to re-litigate that issue in an effort to resolve it in a contrary way at a future trial.

This sounds confusing, and it can be. To give a simple example of how collateral estoppel would prevent the Commonwealth from retrying a defendant, let’s assume that a defendant is charged with murder, aggravated assault, and simple assault. The facts of this hypothetical case are that a defendant beats a victim to death with his bare hands. Let’s further assume that after a trial, the jury is unable to reach a verdict on the murder charge, but finds the defendant not guilty of the simple assault charge. Because of the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the Commonwealth would be precluded from prosecuting the defendant on the murder charge because he was found not guilty of the simple assault charge. The reason is because the simple assault was a constituent element of the homicide charge. As such, there was already a finding that the defendant did not assault the victim and consequently the Commonwealth would be precluded from retrying the defendant on the homicide charge.

PA Superior Court Rejects Collateral Estoppel Defense Because of Differences in Statutes

Here, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Superior Court concluded that the defendant’s acquittal of the robbery and theft charges did not negate the necessary elements to potentially convict him of the involuntary servitude or trafficking charges. In other words, a jury could believe that the defendant did not rob the complainant, but he did intend to force her into the sex trade. In making its decision, the Superior Court reviewed the trafficking and involuntary servitude statutes. Based on this review, the Superior Court held that the defendant’s acquittal of the robbery and theft charges did not preclude a subsequent prosecution of the trafficking and involuntary servitude offenses because robbing or stealing from her were not predicate elements of these respective charges. In other words, the defendant could have been trafficking her without robbing her or stealing from her. Therefore, the Commonwealth can retry the defendant on these remaining charges.   

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

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 and dismissals 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: Defendant Not In Custody Despite Reading of Miranda Warnings During Police Station Interrogation

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coleman, holding that a defendant is not in custody for purposes of Miranda just because the police read him his Miranda warnings in a police station. This case rejects the fundamental right to counsel as well as the obvious reality that a suspect in a murder/arson investigation who has been escorted to the police station and given his Miranda warnings would assume that he or she is not free to leave and is instead under arrest.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Coleman

On March 30, 2017, the Farrell Police Department was investigating an arson that caused the death of a woman. The police suspected that the defendant was involved. Based on these suspicions, the police went to the defendant’s mother’s home in Farrell, Pennsylvania. The police arrived at the residence armed, but they were not wearing their uniforms. After they identified themselves as police officers, they asked the defendant if he could talk, and the defendant allowed the officers to inside the home. Once inside, the officers told the defendant they wanted to speak with him at the nearby police station, which was about 150 yards away. The defendant responded that he would come to the police station later when he could get a ride because it was raining at the time. When the officers offered him a ride, the defendant agreed and grabbed his insulin kit.

The defendant entered the officers’ unmarked car without being handcuffed. He was not frisked, handcuffed, or restrained when he entered the car. After the two-minute drive, they arrived at the police station. The two officers, along with the defendant, walked inside the building which also contained a regional lockup facility. While walking through the facility, they walked past jail cells and eventually entered an interview room. When the defendant entered the room he was still not restrained. The officers subsequently informed him that he was free to leave at any time and permitted him to keep and use his overcoat, hat, and insulin kit.

At some point, the officers then activated the audio/video recording system and read the defendant his Miranda rights. The defendant did not sign the officers’ waiver form. The officers then began asking the defendant about the previously-mentioned arson. After about one minute, the defendant explained that he did not have anything to say about the arson. Per the Pennsylvania Superior Court, he “explicitly, clearly, and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police.” Despite this clear assertion of his rights, the police officers ignored his statement and continued speaking to him. They reiterated to the defendant that he was not in custody and was free to leave at any time. The officers then advised the defendant that he was a suspect, along with another individual. The officers told the defendant that they wanted to show him some photos “to see if it changed his mind.” They then showed the defendant blown-up photographs of the crime scene and the victim’s body. They also showed video from a local gas station where the defendant and the other suspect obtained gasoline. Finally, they told the defendant “disturbing details about the burnt corpse and emphasized that the victim’s children did not have a mother.”

Despite all of this, the defendant continued to deny involvement in the crime. The officers then produced a photograph of the other suspect and explained that they heard that the defendant had started the fire. They further told the defendant that “you know who did this, and whoever comes in first, that is how the story will be told.” In response to this, the defendant “started to reveal names and information about a vehicle and who the owner of the vehicle was and where that individual lived, and eventually told the police that he pointed out the house that he thought the alleged target lived in and that the [other suspect] lit the place up.” The officers then gave the defendant some paper in case he wanted to make a statement and then left the room for three minutes. While the officers were not in the room, the defendant used his insulin kit. He declined to provide a written statement. After the officers returned to the room they arrested him. He was subsequently charged with second-degree murder, aggravated arson, and other related offenses.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress his statements to the police. On October 4, 2017, a hearing was held. The testimony at the motions hearing was consistent with the above-mentioned facts. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress. The trial court found that he “clearly and unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent after he was given his Miranda warnings.” The court observed that the officers ignored his invocation of his right to remain silent so that they could elicit incriminating statements, but the trial court did not find that the defendant was subjected to custodial interrogation. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

What happens if the police do not give Miranda warnings?

Miranda warnings are a frequently misunderstood issue in criminal law. Many people assume that police are required to read Miranda warnings to a suspect anytime they make an arrest or the case will be dismissed. This is not correct. Instead, Miranda is only relevant in a criminal case when a defendant makes a statement in response to questioning by a government official while the defendant was in custodial detention. If a defendant voluntarily blurts out an incriminating statement, then he or she will not be able to argue that this statement should be suppressed because the police failed to give the Miranda warnings. Further, if the police detain someone for an “investigatory detention,” rather than a custodial detention, then the police are not necessarily required to provide Miranda warnings prior to asking questions. For this reason, police do not typically have to provide Miranda warnings during many routine traffic stops. Traffic stops, however, can rise to the level of an arrest, and at that point, the police would be required to provide warnings.

Determining whether a statement should be suppressed because of the failure to administer Miranda warnings is a very fact intensive analysis. First, a court must look and see whether the question or statement made by the police itself was reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response. Usually, this is the least complicated part of the analysis. If a cop asks a defendant “if they did it” or “why did you do it” then those questions are reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response.

The issue that is more complicated is whether the defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda. When these motions are litigated, defense attorneys will routinely ask questions such as: whether the defendant was in handcuffs; whether the officers were uniformed; whether the officers’ guns were visible; the length of the interrogation; the method of questioning; whether the door was closed; whether the defendant was offered anything to eat; etc. By doing this, the defense attorney is trying to establish that the defendant’s liberty was so restrained that he was in custody for purposes of Miranda. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court will make a finding based on the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the defendant’s statement should be suppressed. If the court grants a defendant’s motion to suppress it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that the case will be dismissed. It only means that the Commonwealth cannot use the defendant’s statement in its case-in-chief. For a more detailed analysis on when the police are required to administer Miranda warnings, please see our blog “What Happens if the Police Don’t Give Miranda Warnings?”    

Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds That the Defendant’s Statement Was Not Illegally Obtained.

In a brief analysis, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the lower court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress his statement. The reason was because both the trial court and the Superior Court found that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. Specifically, because he was not threatened, was told that he could leave;,was able to bring his insulin with him, and did not go to the police station against his will, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. The fact that he was administered Miranda warnings while in a police station did not transform this into a custodial interrogation. Because he was not in custody, he was not actually entitled to the warnings, and the police therefore did not have to stop questioning him when he said he did not want to make a statement. Accordingly, the Commonwealth will now be able to use his statement against him at his trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

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 and dismissals 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 Approves Current Philadelphia Police DUI Checkpoint Procedures

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mercado, holding that Philadelphia Police conducted a constitutional DUI checkpoint despite the fact that the officer who planned the checkpoint selected the location of the checkpoint without any data indicating how many DUIs have occurred at the location of the checkpoint. This is an extremely bad case for privacy rights which allows police to basically establish motor vehicle checkpoints at will without any prior research. The decision also conflicts with the court’s longstanding precedent in cases like Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay.

The Facts of Mercado  

In Mercado, the Philadelphia police stopped the defendant at a DUI checkpoint on the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave in Philadelphia, PA. The officers noticed that the defendant had bloodshot, glassy eyes, and they smelled the odor of burnt marijuana coming from his vehicle and breath. The defendant subsequently admitted to smoking marijuana. He submitted to a “field sobriety test” and presumably failed, and the police then took him into custody on suspicion of DUI. They then transported him to the Police Detention Unit for a blood test.

Prosecutors later charged the defendant with DUI in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the stop, including the blood test results, arguing that the police did not have sufficient data regarding prior incidences of DUI at 300 East Kensington Ave. to establish a constitutional checkpoint at that location.

At the motions hearing, the Commonwealth called the Philadelphia Police Lieutenant who ran the checkpoint to testify. The lieutenant testified that to determine the location of the checkpoint in question, he tabulated all DUI-related incidents in Philadelphia over the previous two years and broke those figures down by DUI-related incidents per police district. He found that the 25th police district, which is 2.3 square miles, had the most DUIs in the city during that period.

He did not have any data specific to the location of the checkpoint. However, he testified that he selected that location because it is one of the only locations in the district which would be large enough and safe enough to conduct a checkpoint involving eighteen police officers, two police cruisers, and one large processing center the size of a fire truck. He also testified that the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave is a main vein of travel within the 25th district.

The Motion to Suppress and Appeal

The Philadelphia Municipal Court granted the motion to suppress, finding that existing case law required the officer to have data specific to the location of the checkpoint in order to avoid a constitutional violation. The Commonwealth appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, and the motions court judge in the Court of Common Pleas affirmed the order granting the motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

 The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the decision of the Municipal Court and ruled that the motion to suppress should not have been granted. The Court noted that DUI checkpoints are governed by the “Tarbert/Blouse” guidelines. Pursuant to those guidelines, the Commonwealth must be able to show that the checkpoint satisfied five requirements in order to be constitutional.

Those requirements are:

  1. vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;

  2. there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;

  3. the decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval;

  4. the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling; and

  5. the decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of the officers at the scene.

Further, substantial compliance with the guidelines is all that is require in order to minimize the intrusiveness of a roadblock seizure to a constitutionally acceptable level.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court found that Philadelphia Police substantially complied with these rules. The officer testified that he selected the route based on statistical data demonstrating that the district in question accounted for the highest rate of DUI arrests in the city, and that Allegheny Avenue was the main avenue of East-West travel in the district. He also considered traffic volume and safety factors when selecting the location of the checkpoint. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police should have had some kind of data relating specifically to Allegheny Avenue. Instead, the Court reasoned that the relatively high rate of DUIs in that district coupled with the safety considerations considered by the lieutenant made the selection of that location constitutional.

Unfortunately, this decision amounts to carte blanche for the police to establish a checkpoint anytime and anywhere. Previous decisions such as Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay required actual numbers as to how many DUIs occurred on the street selected for the checkpoint. This opinion lets the police simply establish a checkpoint in any district where they can testify that the district has a large number of DUIs and on any road that could be characterized as a busy road. The opinion simply ignores the prior case law, and hopefully it will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Hopefully, this opinion may be limited to the 25th District as that is the only district where police would be able to claim that the district has the highest number of DUIs. In other districts, police may still be required to have more information before establishing a checkpoint. Each DUI case involving a checkpoint should still be carefully evaluated for a potential “checkpoint motion” as well as a motion to suppress based on other grounds such as an illegal arrest or the failure to provide Miranda warnings.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

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 obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Forgery, Access Device Fraud, 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 Lowers Bar for Forgery Convictions

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Green, affirming the defendant’s conviction for forgery where the evidence showed that the defendant cashed a check that he knew should not have been made out to him. This decision is problematic for future forgery defendants as it could make it easier for prosecutors to prove that a given defendant had the knowledge necessary to be convicted of forgery.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Green

In August 2015, St. Moritz Labor Services, a temporary staffing agency, discovered 18 checks drawn on its account that had not been issued in accordance with company procedures. These checks were fraudulent duplicates of lawfully issued checks. The payees were not known to St. Moritz. Further, the amounts on the checks were much higher than St. Moritz standard payroll checks. One of these checks was made payable to the defendant. The defendant never worked for St. Moritz and had no affiliation with that entity. On August 3, 2015, the defendant cashed a St. Moritz check at a local K-Mart.

St. Moritz reported the checks to the police, and the police began an investigation. During the course of their investigation, Officer Green of the Whitehall Police Department contacted the defendant and asked to speak with him regarding a cashed check. According to Officer Green, the defendant stated “[I] only did it once.” After he was given his Miranda rights, the defendant stated that he cashed the check to pay off fines. The defendant stated that he received the check in the mail and he did not know where the check came from or who sent the check. The defendant confirmed that he never worked for St. Moritz and admitted that he did not have any reason to receive a check from that company.

Police arrested the defendant and charged him with forgery, access device fraud, and bad checks. At the preliminary hearing, a magistrate judge dismissed the access device fraud and bad check charges. The defendant proceeded by way of bench trial, and the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to two years’ reporting probation and restitution. The defendant then filed a timely appeal. On appeal, a divided Superior Court panel reversed the judgment of sentence. Thereafter, the Commonwealth sought en banc review, which the Superior Court granted. On appeal, the defendant challenged whether the evidence was sufficient to satisfy the mens rea element of the forgery charge.

What is Forgery?

18 Pa. C.S.A. § 4101 provides for the crime of forgery. A person is guilty of forgery if, with the intent to defraud or injure anyone, the actor either: 1) alters a writing without his authority; 2) makes, completes, executes…issues or transfers a writing so that it purports to be the act of another who did not authorize the act; or 3) utters any writing that he knows to be forged.

As a practical matter, forgery is a difficult crime for the Commonwealth to prove. The Commonwealth typically needs multiple witnesses to prove their case, which often makes it difficult for the Commonwealth to get ready for a preliminary hearing or trial. Because prosecutors may not use hearsay evidence at a trial, they often have significant problems in proving forgery cases. For example, prosecutors generally need to present the testimony of the witness or witnesses who saw a defendant use the allegedly forged instrument, the officer who arrested him or her, the detective or bank investigator who investigated the case, and a custodian of records from the organization that owns the checking account in question. Getting all of these witnesses to appear at the same time can be difficult, and the failure to do so often results in the dismissal of cases.

Additionally, proving the mens rea for forgery is also difficult for the Commonwealth. Forgery is not a strict liability crime. In other words, just because one possesses a forged check does not mean that one is guilty of forgery. As such, trial courts are supposed to heavily scrutinize a defendant’s actions to see if they are guilty of this offense and whether there is any evidence that the defendant actually forged the document or had reason to know that the document was in fact forged. One of the seminal cases on this issue (and one that was analogized in the instant case) was Commonwealth v. Gibson. In Gibson, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the defendant in that case did not commit the crime of forgery even though he possessed a forged check. The reason was because, in Gibson, the circumstances did not show that he was trying to commit a fraud or any other type of wrongdoing. After presenting the forged check, the defendant in Gibson presented his identification when asked for it, did not attempt to flee when asked for said identification, and otherwise did not engage in any suspicious behavior when he attempted to cash said check. Because of the lack of suspicious or criminal behavior, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the Commonwealth failed to prove that the defendant knew that the check was forged. Without the requisite level of knowledge, a defendant cannot be convicted of forgery.

A Divided Pennsylvania Superior Court Affirms the Defendant’s Conviction

In this case, a divided en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for forgery. In the split decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that, unlike the defendant in Commonwealth v. Gibson, the defendant possessed the requisite mens rea to commit the crime of forgery. Specifically, the majority opinion focused on the defendant’s statement to the police that “he only did it once.” According to the Court, this statement and the defendant’s admission that he had no affiliation with St. Moritz or any reason to receive a check from them established that he had the necessary mens rea to justify a forgery conviction.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

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 obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Forgery, Access Device Fraud, 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.