Violent Crimes

PA Superior Court: Non-Verbal Gestures May Be a Terroristic Threat

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Kline, holding that a person can commit the crime of terroristic threats by using a hand gesture. This decision is significant because it makes it easier for the Commonwealth to prove that a defendant committed the crime of terroristic threats even where the defendant has not said anything explicitly threatening.    

Commonwealth v. Kline

In Kline, the complainant and the defendant lived relatively close to one another in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. According to the complainant, the defendant never left his property. Prior to the day in question, the defendant would follow the complainant up and down her long driveway before and after work while staring at her. According to the complainant, the defendant would routinely stare at her with a flat affect and watch her and her family as they entered and exited their home. It is unclear whether the defendant ever spoke to the complainant or her family while they were neighbors. 

Per the complainant, the defendant’s actions were very unsettling. His actions caused her to be on “heightened alert [and] concerned as to what he might do next.” On February 25, 2017, the day in question, the complainant arrived at her home with her six-year-old daughter. The defendant then proceeded to walk up to her car, put his hands up, and imitate firing a gun at the complainant. The complainant stated that the defendant’s actions “scared [them] to death.” Immediately after this occurred, the complainant went to the Pennsylvania State Police to report the incident. She also stated that her daughter begged her not to take her home. The defendant was arrested and charged with terroristic threats. 

In addition to the complainant, the state trooper also testified at the defendant’s trial. He testified that the complainant looked “terrorized” and “distraught” after her interaction with the defendant. The defendant also testified at trial. He stated that he gestured with his thumb and pointer finger as a way to say “hello, hey how are you doing?” to the person in a car. He also stated that he did not recall ever staring at the victim on prior occasions when she would walk to and from her home. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty. At sentencing, he was sentenced to 3-23 months’ imprisonment, fined $500 and immediately paroled. The defendant then filed a timely appeal arguing that because his non-verbal gesture was not accompanied by any type of verbal communication, the evidence was not sufficient to convict him.

What is the Crime of Terroristic Threats?

18 Pa C.S.A. § 2706 is the statute that governs the crime of terroristic threats. A person is guilty of terroristic threats if the person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to: 1) commit any crime of violence with the intent to terrorize another; 2) cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly or facility of public transportation; or 3) otherwise cause serious public inconvenience, or cause terror or serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience. Direct communication is not required for the Commonwealth to convict a defendant of this crime.

The purpose of this statute is to prevent the psychological distress that follows from an invasion of another’s sense of personal security. The crime of terroristic threats is not meant to criminalize threats that arise out of anger during a dispute. As such, courts are supposed to look at the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a defendant has uttered a terroristic threat. It is important to note that just because a defendant is angry does not mean they will be acquitted of the charge of terroristic threats. Additionally, one’s ability to carry out said threat is not relevant to whether the person committed the crime of terroristic threats nor is the victim’s subjective belief about the ability of the threat to be carried out.

In practice, the Commonwealth will routinely charge someone with terroristic threats if a defendant utters something that could be reasonably construed as a threat. The Commonwealth has significant incentive to do so. For one, terroristic threats is a misdemeanor of the first degree. If a defendant is found guilty of that charge, a judge has five years to work with when fashioning a sentence for him or her. Additionally, it is a relatively easy crime to prove. Unlike other crimes that have a specific intent mens rea, terroristic threats only require that the Commonwealth prove that the defendant acted recklessly when making these assertions. Further, as a result of the decision in Kline, the Commonwealth will have an easier time of proving this charge in future prosecutions where the defendant makes a non-verbal gesture.

Conviction Affirmed

The Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for the charge of terroristic threats. In upholding his conviction, the Superior Court noted that a communication does not have to be direct to uphold a conviction for terroristic threats. The Superior Court went on to say that while some non-verbal gestures will not be sufficient to sustain a conviction, in this case, when combined with the defendant’s past behavior towards the complainant, the evidence was sufficient to satisfy the communication prong of the charge. Further, the record supported that the complainant experienced psychological distress because of the defendant’s actions. The complainant testified that she was under duress because of the defendant’s actions and the state trooper corroborated this by testifying that she looked terrorized. The Superior Court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant of terroristic threats, and his conviction will remain in effect.

Need a Criminal Defense Attorney? We Can Help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal 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 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: Reaching for a Gun While Fleeing from a Theft Is Probably a First-Degree Felony Robbery

Philadelphia Robbery Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Robbery Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Ouch, holding that the Commonwealth produced sufficient evidence of first-degree felony Robbery at the preliminary hearing where the Commonwealth showed that the defendant committed a retail theft and then reached for a gun after being stopped by the store’s loss prevention officer. The court found that although there was some evidence that the loss prevention officer may not have actually seen the gun, the trial court improperly dismissed the first-degree felony charge after erroneously weighing the evidence and resolving conflicts in the testimony. Instead, because the Commonwealth receives the benefit of any reasonable inferences at a preliminary hearing, the court should have accepted the security guard’s testimony that the defendant tried to pull a gun on him despite video evidence which was arguably to the contrary. Further, the focus of the inquiry at the preliminary hearing is on the likely intent of the defendant, not the subjective belief of the complainant.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Ouch

A Philadelphia police officer responded to a radio call for a robbery in progress at a local market. Upon arrival, the complainant and a uniformed security officer both stated that an Asian male described as 5’6 and 150 pounds in his 20’s or 30’s wearing a gray Phillies hat, gray hooded sweatshirt with white design on the front was attempting to shoplift seafood. Witnesses testified that when store security attempted to stop the male in the doorway, the male attempted to pull a firearm from his waistband. The security guard smacked the man’s hand away, and the man fled the parking lot in a white Toyota Corolla. This incident was caught on camera. A detective then viewed the video of the incident and immediately recognized the defendant. The defendant was subsequently arrested on an arrest warrant by Philadelphia Police.

The defendant later appeared in court for his preliminary hearing. The Commonwealth called the security guard to testify as a witness at the preliminary hearing. He testified that at the direction of his manager, he stopped “an Asian guy” whom he described as 5’5 and wearing a gray shirt, hat, sneakers, and blue jeans on suspicion of shoplifting. The Commonwealth then played a video of the incident. The security officer identified on the video the point at which the defendant reached for his waistband. When asked what he did in response to this, the security officer replied “[p]ushed back off…because he reached for a gun so I said, I told the manager, ‘we ain’t dying for this.’”

On cross-examination, the security guard acknowledged that although he saw the defendant reach for something, he did not know what it was. He further conceded that when he saw the defendant reach for his waist, he did not know what he was reaching for because he had taken his eyes off of him. Additionally, the defendant never brandished a weapon nor pointed a gun in front of him. Based on the Superior Court’s opinion, the only time that the security guard saw the gun was when the defendant had his back to him as he was fleeing the market.  

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge held the defendant for all charges except for robbery in the first degree. The court instead downgraded the robbery charge to robbery as a felony of the third degree. The Commonwealth filed a motion to re-file the charge of robbery graded as a first-degree felony. The defendant’s defense attorney filed a motion to quash seeking the dismissal of all charges based on a lack of evidence.

At a hearing on the two motions, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge denied the Commonwealth’s request to re-file the charge of first-degree Robbery, but the judge permitted the Commonwealth to charge the defendant with Robbery as a second-degree felony. The motions judge opined that the Commonwealth did not produce any evidence that the defendant brandished or pointed the gun at either of the witnesses. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the motions court erred in concluding that it did not present sufficient evidence to show that the defendant placed the security guard in fear of immediate serious bodily injury.

What is the difference between Robbery as a first-degree felony and second-degree felony?

In general, Robbery as a first-degree felony is much more serious than Robbery as a felony of the second or third degrees. When Robbery is a first-degree felony, it becomes a crime of violence under Pennsylvania law and therefore a “strike” offense which could trigger a significant mandatory minimum of a decade or more for a defendant who has been convicted of other strike offenses in the past. A conviction for robbery as a second or third degree felony, however, does not trigger a mandatory minimum and calls for a much lesser sentence under the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. The main difference between Robbery as a felony of the first degree and Robbery as a felony of the second degree is that first-degree felony Robbery requires evidence that the defendant caused, attempted to cause, or put the victim in fear of serious bodily injury during the commission of a theft. This typically involves the use of a weapon such as a gun or knife. Robbery as a second degree, however, only requires evidence that the defendant caused, attempted to cause, or put the victim in fear of bodily injury, which is less than serious bodily injury. The fear of bodily injury could come from a verbal threat, shove, or punch. Thus, Robbery as a felony of the second degree is easier for the Commonwealth to prove, and less serious, than Robbery as a felony of the first degree.

What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?

Preliminary hearings are frequently misunderstood by defendants with no prior contacts with the criminal justice system. In Philadelphia, a defendant will only have a preliminary hearing if they are charged with a felony. Further, the preliminary hearing is not a trial. This means that the purpose is not to determine whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Instead, the purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a case to go to trial. Specifically, in order for a case to proceed beyond the preliminary hearing, the judge must make a determination that a crime occurred and that the accused is probably the perpetrator of that crime. Consequently, the burden of proof is much lower for the Commonwealth at a preliminary hearing than it is at trial. At a preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth must only establish a prima facie case that the defendant was the one who committed said crime. At a trial, however, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. Additionally, all reasonable inferences are given to the Commonwealth, and the evidence must be read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth’s case.

Preliminary hearings can be very frustrating because credibility is also not an issue. In other words, a judge is not supposed to take into consideration how believable the witness is. Rather, the judge is supposed to make a determination based on the record to see if the Commonwealth has put forth enough evidence to go forward with its case. Consequently, when in court, when attorneys argue about the charges following the preliminary hearing, they are usually fighting about whether or not the Commonwealth has established all of the elements of the particular crimes charged. If the court finds that the Commonwealth has met its burden, then a defendant will be “held for court,” which means that he or she will have to face trial or litigate motions. It is important to remember that just because a defendant has been held for court does not mean the defendant has been found guilty. Although preliminary hearings do not allow the defense to challenge the credibility of witnesses, they are still extremely important hearings because they allow for the potential of having charges dismissed or downgraded when the Commonwealth does not have sufficient evidence and for cross-examining witnesses under oath. The record from the preliminary hearing will often turn out to be very valuable later either at trial or at a motion to suppress hearing. For a much more detailed analysis of what happens at a preliminary hearing, please see our blog “What is a Preliminary Hearing? What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing?” https://goldsteinmehta.com/blog/what-happens-at-the-preliminary-hearing.

Superior Court Holds Defendant for Court on First-Degree Felony Robbery

 The Superior Court found that the lower courts erred when they discharged the first-degree robbery charge. The Superior Court held that its review of the evidence, when viewing it in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and accepted as true, found that there was sufficient evidence to hold the defendant for trial on the first-degree robbery charge. According to the Superior Court, the security guard’s testimony that the defendant “reached for a gun” and his utterance of “we ain’t dying for this” was sufficient to establish the requisite elements of first-degree robbery. As stated above, according to the Commonwealth’s witness, the defendant did not brandish a gun at him and he did not see what the defendant reached for during their interaction. Further, the security guard did not even see a gun until after the defendant had turned his back to him as he was fleeing the market. Nonetheless, despite all of these deficiencies, the Superior Court found that there was sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case for first-degree robbery and the defendant will now have to go to trial on that charge, as well.

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal 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 in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault, 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 Rejects Castle Doctrine Defense Where Victim Did Nothing More Than Bang on Defendant’s Front Door

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cannavo, holding that a defendant is not entitled to raise the Castle Doctrine defense solely because he subjectively believed that the victim was trying to enter his house. Instead, prior to instructing a jury on Pennsylvania’s castle doctrine defense, the court must find that there is evidence of record from which the defendant could have objectively, reasonably believed that someone was trying to enter his or her house without permission.      

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Cannavo

In Cannavo, the defendant was staying at a carriage house near West Chester University on Halloween in 2015. That night, the victim and his friends went out into West Chester wearing Halloween costumes. The victim and his friends were intoxicated. At 1:17 a.m., the victim and his friends attempted to enter a party around the carriage house, but were denied entry. After being denied entry to the party, the victim proceeded to bang on the defendant’s door. The defendant had a closed-circuit television system that permitted him to see the area outside his door. It is unclear how many times the victim banged on the defendant’s door, but there was no evidence presented at trial that the victim actually attempted to enter the defendant’s house beyond knocking on the door. The defendant, however, testified that he believed that the victim was attempting to break into his house, but there was nothing to support the defendant’s belief beyond the victim’s knocking on the door.

After the victim knocked on the door, the defendant fired a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol through the door without opening it. The bullet went through the door and struck the victim in his small intestine and colon. The police later discovered that, because of the defendant’s prior criminal record, he was not allowed to possess the gun. Fortuntaely, the victim survived. The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault, and persons not to possess a firearm.

At trial, the defendant raised a claim of self-defense. Prior to the court’s instructions to the jury, the defendant requested a charge directing the jury to consider the castle doctrine, which would inform the jury of a presumption of a reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary for the defendant to defend himself based on the victim’s unauthorized entry into the defendant’s home. The trial court denied his request for this jury instruction. The jury then convicted the defendant of the above crimes, and the trial court subsequently convicted him, following a bench trial, of persons not to possess a firearm in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 6105.

The trial court sentenced the defendant to an aggregate term of 25-50 years’ incarceration. The defendant filed post-sentence motions for reconsideration which were denied. He then filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant raised two issues on appeal. For purposes of this article, only the issue of whether the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on the castle-doctrine presumption.

What is the Castle Doctrine?

The Castle Doctrine is a basic tenet of American law. The ideological foundation for the castle doctrine is the belief that a person’s home is his castle and that one should not be required to retreat from his sanctum. The doctrine is of ancient origins and even the Bible references it. Ironically, even though this doctrine has existed for thousands of years, it was only codified into Pennsylvania law in 2011.

The Castle Doctrine defense, when available, is a legal rule that permits a defendant to lawfully use deadly force against another individual. The burden is on the defense to establish the factual support for the Castle Doctrine defense. To assert the Castle Doctrine defense, a defendant must establish that the victim is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or has unlawfully and forcefully entered and is present within a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. Further, a defendant must establish that he took his actions because he believed that his actions were necessary to protect against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or rape. However, the unauthorized entry or attempted entry into the residence raises a presumption that the actions were in fact necessary to protect against death or serious bodily injury, thereby making it easier for the defendant to prove that he or she acted in self-defense. It is important to note that just because a defendant raises the Castle Doctrine defense does not mean that they are entitled to an acquittal. Rather, the burden switches to the Commonwealth to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a defendant is not entitled to the Castle Doctrine defense (i.e. the  defendant did not credibly believe that he was in danger of death, serious bodily injury, etc.).   

There are limits to the Castle Doctrine, however. A defendant is not entitled to this defense if: the person against whom the force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner or lessee; the person sought to be removed is a child or grandchild or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of the person against whom the protective force is used; the actor is engaged in a criminal activity or is using the dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle to further a criminal activity; or the person against whom the force is used is a peace officer acting in the performance of his official duties and the actor using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a peace officer. Taking all of this into consideration, a trial court must decide, based on the facts presented at trial, whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant the Castle Doctrine jury instruction. Whether the jury receives such a instruction is incredibly important because if the jury does not receve the instruction from the court, the jury will not likely find a defendant not guilty due to this defense.

Cannavo Was Not Entitled to the Castle Doctrine Defense

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial to include the Castle Doctrine jury instruction. In Cannavo, the Superior Court ruled that it is not enough for the defendant to subjectively believe that the victim was trying to enter his home. Instead, there must also be factual support for a defendant’s belief that the victim was attempting to enter his or her home.  The Superior Court found that there was simply no evidence that the victim was trying to enter the defendant’s home and that the defendant’s subjective belief was not sufficient to receive the jury instruction. Further, assuming that the victim was actually trying to enter his home, the defendant was not entitled to raise this defense because he illegally possessed a firearm and was not justified in doing so. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied the defense’s motion for the relevant jury instruction. This defendant will not receive a new trial.

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 successfully obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, 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: Shooting Someone in the Calf Is Not Automatically Attempted Murder

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Predmore, finding that the trial court properly granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of attempted murder where the evidence showed only that the defendant shot the victim in the calf twice and missed with a third shot. Predmore is an excellent case which re-affirms the proposition that the serious charge of Attempted Murder requires the specific intent to kill. The Commonwealth may not prove Attempted Murder simply by showing that the defendant shot someone.

The Facts of Predmore

In Predmore, the complainant drove past his ex-girlfriend’s house and noticed the defendant’s vehicle. He stopped near the rear of the vehicle. The defendant left the house and walked into the parking lot. The defendant and the complainant then began to argue. The complainant’s ex-girlfriend broke up the argument, but the defendant then retrieved a gun from his car. He subsequently shot at the complainant three times, missing with one shot but striking him in the back of the calves twice. The defendant then left in his car, and the complainant went to the hospital. The defendant told the police that he had acted in self-defense. The Commonwealth charged the defendant with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, and Recklessly Endangering Another Person.

The defendant was held for court at a preliminary hearing. His defense attorney filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus (called a motion to quash in Philadelphia), asking the Common Pleas Judge to dismiss the Attempted Murder charge. After conducting a hearing on the motion, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the Attempted Murder charge. The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. 

The Superior Court Appeal

The Commonwealth filed an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court, arguing that the trial court erred in dismissing the Attempted Murder charge and that the dismissal of the charge substantially handicapped the prosecution. An en banc panel of the Superior Court ultimately upheld the trial court’s ruling. The court began by noting that Attempted Murder requires the specific intent to commit a homicide. Thus, criminal attempt to murder is defined by reading Pennsylvania’s attempt statute with the first-degree murder statute. A conviction for Attempted Murder requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the specific intent to kill and took a substantial step towards that goal. The mens rea element of Attempted Murder is the specific intent to kill, which is the same mens rea as first degree murder. The defendant must also have more than just the requisite mens rea. The defendant must also take a substantial step towards committing the intended killing. There is no such thing as attempted third degree murder under Pennsylvania law.

Here, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant attempted to kill the complainant by shooting at him repeatedly. However, the Superior Court rejected this argument. It agreed that the defendant had taken a substantial step towards the commission of a killing as shooting someone could lead to death, but it rejected the idea that the defendant had acted with the intent to kill. Attempted Murder requires more than just an action that could result in death – it requires an actual attempt to kill. Thus, had the defendant shot at the complainant’s head, or had the defendant said something that indicated that he wanted to kill the complainant, the Commonwealth may have presented sufficient evidence. The Commonwealth’s evidence failed to meet its burden, however, because the Commonwealth showed only that the defendant shot at the complainant’s legs from close range.

Notably, the Court’s opinion rejected the idea that the trial court should have just assumed the existence of the mens rea element from the defendant’s act of merely shooting a gun. In many preliminary hearings, magistrates tend to relieve the Commonwealth of its burden of actually showing that the defendant acted with a certain level of intent. Because the standard for holding a defendant for court at a preliminary hearing is less than the standard for obtaining a conviction at a trial, courts often assume that if something could have happened, the defendant may have intended for it to happen, and therefore actual evidence of mens rea is unnecessary.

The Superior Court explicitly rejected that argument here. The specific intent to kill may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of a victim’s body. However, the legs were not a vital part of the defendant’s body. Further, there was no evidence that the defendant had shot at a vital part and missed because the defendant was only a few feet away from the complainant. There was also no verbal statement from the defendant that suggested an intent to kill or evidence of motive to kill. Therefore, there was no evidence of the requisite mens rea, and the Court upheld the dismissal of the Attempted Murder charge. A shooting is not automatically an Attempted Murder.

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.  

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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, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Robbery, Aggravated Assault, 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.