PA Superior Court: Trial Court Must Bifurcate Felon in Possession of Firearm Charges from Other Criminal Charges

 Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Brown, holding that when the Commonwealth prosecutes 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 6105 (Persons Not to Possess a Firearms) (hereinafter § 6105), along with other charges, the trial court must sever the § 6105 charge from the other offenses and hear those other offenses first when the defendant’s prior conviction is only relevant for purposes of § 6105. This is a significant decision because it prohibits the Commonwealth from circumventing PA Rule of Evidence 404. Rule 404 prohibits the Commonwealth from telling the jury that the defendant has a criminal record, barring certain exceptions which do not apply in the typical gun case.  

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Brown

On March 26, 2015, a paratransit driver in Westmoreland County was at work. He was in the process of picking up patients and transporting them to various medical facilities. While working, he had a leather jacket with him, and in one of the pockets, he had a loaded gun. The jacket was draped over the driver’s seat in a way that made it accessible to the backseat passengers. The driver picked up the defendant and transported him to Latrobe Hospital. There were other occupants in the vehicle with the defendant. While driving, he felt a tug on his jacket. Although he was concerned about the gun, the paratransit driver decided he would not check on his gun until he transported the other occupants to their destinations. When the driver dropped the defendant off, he noticed that his gun was missing. He then called the police. Police went to the defendant’s house, frisked him, and searched the house, but they did not find the gun. The defendant told the police that he did not have it. 

Police eventually determined that the defendant’s nephew had the gun. When they questioned the nephew, he led the police to the gun and explained that the defendant gave it to him along with $50 for storing it. Police arrested the defendant and charged him with Theft, Receiving Stolen Property, § 6105, and Firearms Not to be Carried Without a License (VUFA 6106). Appellant had previous convictions for aggravated assault and robbery. These prior convictions made it illegal for him to possess a firearm. 

Pre-Trial Motions

Prior to trial, the defense attorney filed a Motion for a Bifurcated Trial for the § 6105 charge. The defense attorney argued that it would be prejudicial for the jury to hear that his client had the prior convictions. The trial judge agreed to bifurcate, however, seeking to aid the Commonwealth in its prosecution, the judge allowed the prosecution to proceed with the case as it saw fit. In other words, the trial court did not require that the Commonwealth present evidence of the § 6105 offense and relevant, unfairly prejudicial convictions after it presented evidence of the other alleged crimes like theft and receiving stolen property. Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth chose to proceed with the § 6105 case first, and then that same jury heard evidence relating to the other charges. Consequently, the jury knew of the defendant’s prior criminal history before it heard the evidence for the other charges. The jury convicted the defendant and found him guilty of all four charges. The trial court sentenced him to three and a half to eight years of incarceration. Appellant appealed, and on appeal, he raised several issues. First, he attacked the sufficiency of the evidence. However, the main issue for purposes of the appeal was whether he was unfairly prejudiced when the trial court allowed the Commonwealth to proceed with the § 6105 charge before the other charges. 

Can the Prosecution Introduce Evidence of a Prior Criminal Record in a Criminal Trial? 

Generally, no. The rules of evidence often prohibit this because of the fact that juries are extremely likely to convict when they hear that a defendant has a prior criminal record. Rule 404 (a)(1) prohibits the use of evidence of a person’s character to show that on a particular occasion that this person acted in accordance with that character or trait. 404(b)(1) prevents the introduction of a crime in order to show that individual committed this particular crime. What these two subsections seek to prevent is the Commonwealth introducing evidence that a defendant, at some point in his or her life, did something morally wrong or committed some crime to show that he or she committed the crime that they are currently charged with. Obviously, this is a significant rule. If a jury were to hear that the person on trial had previously been convicted of a crime, then the jury is much more likely to convict. There are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, the Commonwealth can file what is referred to as a “Prior Acts Motion” to introduce prior crimes committed by a defendant to show a common scheme, motive, knowledge, lack of mistake, or intent. For example, if the defendant has been charged with burglary in which he or she wore a unique mask, the Commonwealth could probably introduce evidence of prior Burglary cases in which the defendant wore the same mask to show the identity of the defendant. These 404(b) exceptions typically do not apply in a routine gun case, and the Commonwealth did not file the required motion to admit prior bad acts evidence in advance. 

However, the Commonwealth may also introduce evidence of a prior crime when it is an element of the crime charged (i.e. § 6105). However, courts have consistently held that the introduction of the underlying conviction that makes the defendant ineligible to possess a firearm should be severed from the other parts of the case. The reason is obvious: as stated above, hearing that the defendant has a prior conviction will unfairly prejudice the jury. 

In Philadelphia, the common practice is that the Commonwealth and the defendant agree to have the judge decide whether the defendant has an underlying conviction that makes him or her ineligible to possess a firearm. Typically, there will be a stipulation because it is usually very clear whether or not the person is eligible to possess a firearm. Thus, the jury will not be privy to this information when deciding whether the Commonwealth met its burden for the other elements of § 6105 and the other, if applicable, charges against the defendant. Alternatively, the parties may agree to stipulate to an acquittal or conviction on the 6105 charge that matches the jury’s decision on the other charges. However, each jurisdiction has its own quirks, so you need an attorney who is familiar with the particular jurisdiction and its customs and practices to represent you if you are charged with § 6105.   

Superior Court Finds Commonwealth Must Bifurcate at Trial and Introduce Evidence for § 6105 After it Proves Other Charges

Although the Superior Court held that the trial court was correct in severing the § 6105 charge from the other charges, it stated that allowing the Commonwealth to choose the order in which to introduce evidence was “an exercise in futility.” The reason is obvious: allowing the Commonwealth to proceed with the § 6105 charge first clearly prejudiced the jury because the jurors became aware of the defendant’s prior convictions for robbery and aggravated assault. This, in essence, allowed the Commonwealth to circumvent the prohibitions outlined in Rule 404(b). The Superior Court saw through this and found that the defendant was clearly prejudiced and ordered that he receive a new trial. 

Call the Award Winning Law Office of Goldstein Mehta LLC if You Are Charged With Illegally Possessing a Firearm

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Gun crimes are very serious, and you need a skilled defense attorney if you are charged with illegally possessing a firearm. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.