The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Explains Conspiracy and Accomplice Liability and Reverses an Aggravated Assault Conviction
We previously wrote about the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Chambers. There, the Superior Court found that mace could constitute a deadly weapon where the use of the mace rendered the complainant vulnerable to and unable to defend himself from additional assaults from other people. This week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s conviction in Chambers, finding that the Commonwealth failed to prove either the existence of a conspiracy or accomplice liability beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the Court reversed the defendant’s convictions for Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and possessing instruments of crime (“PIC”).
The Facts of Chambers
In Chambers, the defendant was charged with Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and related charges as a result of his participation in a street fight into which additional persons entered. The incident began when the complainant drove to an apartment complex in Philadelphia. Once the complainant arrived, he saw Chambers standing next to a Jeep which was blocking entrance to the driveway. The complainant beeped at the Jeep and asked Chambers and the Jeep’s occupants why they were blocking the driveway. He asked them to move. When they did not answer, the complainant continued to yell at them. Chambers did not say anything, but he gave the complainant a nasty look.
The complainant eventually drove up on the curb in order to drive by the Jeep and park. As he drove by, some kind of words were exchanged with Chambers. The complainant parked his car, approached Chambers, and asked Chambers why they were blocking the driveway. The verbal argument escalated into a fist fight, with Chambers throwing the first punch. The complainant defended himself. Once the incident became physical, other people jumped in and helped Chambers. A female approached the complainant from behind, tore his glasses from his face, and began scraping and scratching his cheek and forehead. The complainant continued to throw punches to defend himself, but he could not see what was going on. Chambers climbed on his back, pinned him down, and began punching him repeatedly. While Chambers was doing that, a woman sprayed mace in the complainant’s face. The witnesses did not identify any weapons other than the mace as being used during the fight.
Philadelphia Police eventually arrived on the scene and saw Chambers punching the complainant in the face. As the officer arrived, he heard some of the females in the group yelling at Chambers to stop. The officer grabbed Chambers, pulled him off of the complainant, and put him in his handcuffs. The complainant attempted to leave, but the officer grabbed him and also put him in cuffs. Chambers repeatedly yelled that he was going to kill the complainant in front of the officer. The officer observed that the complainant had a large cut on his face, and the complainant told the officer that someone cut him with a knife. The officer, however, searched everyone at the scene and did not find a knife. Additionally, witnesses testified that no one used a knife. There were also defense witnesses who testified that the complainant was much bigger than Chambers and had in fact instigated the fight. This defense witness also testified that he did not see a knife, but he heard Chambers yelling that the complainant had a knife and asking for others to find the knife.
Police transported the complainant to the hospital and decided not to charge him with any crimes. The complainant suffered broken ribs, a burned retina, a concussion, and a laceration above his eye which required stitches. Police decided to charge Chambers with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, possessing instruments of crime, terroristic threats, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
Chambers proceeded by way of bench trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and the trial judge found him guilty of conspiracy and Aggravated Assault as a felony of the second degree. The trial judge’s decision to grade the Aggravated Assault as a second degree felony ultimately turned out to be critical to the appeal because Aggravated Assault as a second degree felony is very different from first degree felony Aggravated Assault.
F1 Aggravated Assault requires the causation or the attempt to cause serious bodily injury. F2 Aggravated Assault, however, involves causing or attempting to cause bodily injury with a deadly weapon. Recognizing that Chambers himself had not used any kind of weapon against the complainant, the Commonwealth argued that Chambers had at a minimum attempted to cause serious bodily injury. The trial court found that Chambers did not cause serious bodily injury but had instead cause bodily injury with a deadly weapon under a theory of conspiracy liability because of the female who entered the fight and sprayed the complainant with mace. Thus, in the initial appeal, the Superior Court upheld the decision of the trial court, finding that the mace could be a deadly weapon under the right circumstances.
The Supreme Court Appeal
Following the Superior Court’s decision, Chambers appealed again to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court does not have to hear every appeal and instead chooses the cases which it wishes to review. In this case, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to review the case. This time, Chambers’s defense attorneys argued that the Superior Court erred in finding that he was on the hook for the F2 Aggravated Assault of the unknown female with the mace because Chambers had not used a deadly weapon himself and had not instructed or encouraged anyone else to join the fight or use a weapon.
The Supreme Court agreed. It recognized that because Chambers had not used the mace himself, the convictions could only be sustained if Chambers had engaged in a conspiracy to commit Aggravated Assault or had acted as an accomplice.
What is a Criminal Conspiracy?
First, the Court rejected the idea that Chambers had acted as part of a conspiracy to assault the complainant. Conspiracy is defined by the Pennsylvania Crimes Code as follows:
(a) Definition of conspiracy. - A person is guilty of conspiracy with another person or persons to commit a crime if with the intent of promoting or facilitating its commission he:
(1) agrees with such other person or persons that they or one or more of them will engage in conduct which constitutes such crime or an attempt or solicitation to commit such crime; or
(2) agrees to aid such other person or persons in the planning or commission of such crime or of an attempt or solicitation to commit such crime. 18 Pa.C.S. § 903(a).
Thus, in order to prove a conspiracy, the Commonwealth must show an agreement to commit a crime, shared criminal intent between the conspiracy members, and an overt act committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. Once the Commonwealth proves these three things, a defendant may be convicted of both conspiracy as a separate crime and the underlying offense or offenses that the conspirators planned to commit.
The difficulty for the Commonwealth in proving conspiracy is that unless it has obtained the testimony of a cooperating witness or has engaged in a wiretap, it is difficult to prove the existence of a prior agreement. This is particularly true when a fight breaks out and a bunch of people jump into the fight. The mere fact that people help each other during a fight, even when those people know each other or are friends, does not mean that they made a prior agreement to commit a crime. Of course, even a quick signal to start a fight such as a nod to the other person could be evidence of a conspiracy. But here, there was no evidence of that. Chambers exchanged words with the complainant and then engaged in a one on one fight. There was simply no evidence whatsoever that Chambers encouraged other people to jump in or use mace. Accordingly, the Court found that the Commonwealth failed to prove a conspiracy and therefore any liability for the underlying offenses beyond the Simple Assault, REAP, and Terroristic Threats that Chambers committed himself.
What is Accomplice Liability?
Second, the Supreme Court also rejected the Superior Court’s reasoning that Chambers acted as an accomplice. Pennsylvania law provides the following definition for accomplice liability:
(c) Accomplice defined.—A person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of an offense if: (1) with the intent of promoting or facilitating the commission of the offense, he:
(i) solicits such other person to commit it; or
(ii) aids or agrees or attempts to aid such other person in planning or committing it; or
(2) his conduct is expressly declared by law to establish his complicity.
(d) Culpability of accomplice.—When causing a particular result is an element of an offense, an accomplice in the conduct causing such result is an accomplice in the commission of that offense, if he acts with the kind of culpability, if any, with respect to that result that is sufficient for the commission of the offense.
18 Pa.C.S. § 306.
The Supreme Court rejected the accomplice liability for two reasons. First, the Commonwealth had never before suggested that Chambers acted as an accomplice. It did not allege that he was an accomplice in the Bills of Information which it submitted prior to trial, and it never argued at trial that Chambers was an accomplice of the woman with the mace. Second, there was simply no evidence in the record whatsoever that Chambers had encouraged anyone else to do anything. He did not tell anyone else to join the fight and he did not ask anyone to use mace on the complainant. He did not even make any non-verbal signals towards the others who joined the fight. He simply had not done anything to solicit another person to commit a crime, and he had not aided or agreed or attempted to aid a person in committing a crime. Although he did hold the complainant down, the Court viewed it as clear that he held the complainant down for the purposes of punching the complainant himself. He did not hold the complainant down so that other people could mace him.
This is an excellent case because conspiracy is one of the most over-charged offenses in Pennsylvania. In virtually every case in which more than one defendant is charged with a crime, the Commonwealth will tack on a conspiracy charge even when there is little or no evidence that the defendants agreed in advance to commit a crime. This is particularly true in cases involving fights among large groups of people. It is a fundamental to criminal law that people should be responsible for their own actions and not the actions of others. Thus, a person should not be on the hook for someone else’s decision to jump into a fight and use a weapon if that first person had nothing to do with that decision and was engaged in a “fair” one on one fight.
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