PA Superior Court: Commonwealth Cannot Automatically Add New Charges Right Before Trial

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Quinones, holding that a trial court cannot permit the amendment of the information (the charging document prosecutors create prior to trial) to add new charges of which the defendant had no prior notice when those new charges would prejudice his or her defense. This is a significant decision because it will limit the ability of a prosecutor to blindside defendants with additional charges on the eve of trial. It will also help prevent prosecutors from retaliating against defendants who reject plea offers and proceed to trial.

Commonwealth v. Quinones

On August 11, 2016, a man with a gun knocked on either the back door or the kitchen window of the apartment where a woman, a man named Mr. Brightful, and their daughter lived. The armed man gestured for the woman to come to the back door. Instead, she ran to the front of the apartment and called Mr. Brightful. He told her to leave. Mr. Brightful’s girlfriend left the apartment and took their child to a nearby hotel.

The next day, Mr. Brightful and the eventual-defendant obtained handguns. That night, someone broke into Mr. Brightful’s home, and Mr. Brightful eventually shot and killed him in the presence of the defendant, Quinones. After Mr. Brightful shot and killed the man, the defendant picked up the decedent’s gun from the couch and told Mr. Brightful that he wanted to keep it. Mr. Brightful took the gun away from him and told him that he could not keep it.

The defendant and Mr. Brightful then moved the victim’s body from Mr. Brightful’s home into a Honda Odyssey van. They drove to a secluded area and disposed of the victim’s body on the side of the road. After disposing of the body, Mr. Brightful drove himself and the defendant back to the house. Five days later, police pulled over Mr. Brightful and the defendant in the van for unknown reasons. Presumably, they were suspects in the homicide. The police obtained a search warrant and searched the van shortly after pulling it over. They did not find any drugs. Inexplicably, the police searched the van again several months later. This time they found heroin and drug paraphernalia in the wheel well of the van. Initially, police had charged the defendant with firearms not to be carried without a license (VUFA 6106), abuse of corpse, conspiracy to commit abuse of corpse, possession of a firearm prohibited persons (VUFA 6105), tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, and possession of instruments of crime. Police did not originally charge him with any drug offenses when they first arrested him because they had not yet found the heroin.

On April 24, 2017, the Commonwealth filed a motion to add charges. Following a hearing on June 2, 2017, the court granted the motion for leave to amend the information, which was amended on June 8, 2017. The trial court permitted the Commonwealth to add the charges of possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver (“PWID”) and possession of drug paraphernalia.

A jury eventually found the defendant guilty of firearms not to be carried without a license, abuse of corpse, conspiracy to commit abuse of corpse, PWID, and possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant then filed post-sentence motions which were denied. He then filed a timely appeal. For purposes of this article, only the issue of whether the trial court erred in permitting the Commonwealth to amend the information prior to trial will be discussed.

Can the Commonwealth add charges after the preliminary hearing but prior to trial?

It depends. Rule 564 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure governs this issue. The rule provides that a court may allow the Commonwealth to add charges so long as the amended “does not charge offenses arising from a different set of events and that the amended charges are not so materially different from the original charge that the defendant would be unfairly prejudiced.”

In determining whether the court will permit the Commonwealth to add charges, trial courts are supposed to consider whether the crimes specified in the original indictment or information involve the same basic elements and evolved out of the same factual situation as the crimes specified in the amended indictment or information. In this regard, courts will typically consider whether the defendant was on notice of the charges from the allegations in the pre-trial discovery provided by prosecutors.

Even where the Commonwealth amends the information to add new charges of which the defendant was not on notice, a defendant will not be successful on appeal unless he can show that the amendment resulted in prejudice. In determining whether a defendant was prejudiced, the appellate courts will consider 1) whether the amendment changes the factual scenario supporting the charges; 2) whether the amendment adds new facts previously unknown to the defendant; 3) whether the entire factual scenario was developed during a preliminary hearing; 4) whether the description of the charges changed with the amendment; 5) whether a change in defense strategy was necessitated by the amendment; and 6) whether the timing of the Commonwealth’s request for amendment allowed for ample notice and preparation.

Let’s give an example of when a court would permit an amendment. Let’s assume that a defendant is accused of stabbing someone and this person, does not die, but is seriously hurt. The defendant is then arrested and only charged with aggravated assault. However, on the eve of trial, the Commonwealth files a motion to amend the information to include the charge of simple assault. The trial court would permit the Commonwealth to amend the petition to add this charge because it shares many of the same elements as aggravated assault. Further, it is highly unlikely that this would result in a change in defense strategy, and thus there is no real risk of prejudice to the defendant by amending the information to include the charge of simple assault. The analysis is different, however, when the Commonwealth wants to add totally unrelated charges or charges relating to an entirely different incident.

Quinones was prejudiced by the addition of PWID charges

The Superior Court held that the trial court erred when it permitted the Commonwealth to amend the information to add the drug charges. As a preliminary matter, the Superior Court held that the amended information charged additional and different offenses. Therefore, the amended information violated Rule 564 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure on its face. Therefore, the Superior Court had to determine whether this resulted in prejudice to the defendant.

The Superior Court held that the amendments prejudiced the defendant because before the amendment, there was no mention of narcotics and thus there was no suggestion that the defendant was involved in drug activity. Additionally, the defendant had a preliminary hearing and there was no mention of the drugs during this hearing. However, when the trial court permitted the amendment it allowed the Commonwealth to argue that he was a drug dealer and that this drug activity could provide a motive for the defendant’s involvement in the crimes.

This amendment was very advantageous to the Commonwealth, it was showed during the opening arguments. During the prosecutor’s opening argument, he specifically stated that the defendant disposed of the body because he did not want the authorities to gain knowledge either of the victim’s death or his enterprise. Thus, it was clear that part of the Commonwealth’s theory was that the defendant’s actions that day were drug related. This was clearly prejudicial to the defendant, and consequently, he will receive a new trial.

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