The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Weber, reversing Weber’s conviction for fleeing or eluding where the trial court precluded him from presenting the statutorily-recognized “personal safety defense."
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Weber
In Weber, the defendant was charged with fleeing or eluding police in violation of 75 Pa.C.S. Sec. 3733. At trial, police testified that they saw the defendant driving through an intersection in Pittsburgh at a high rate of speed. The officers were in uniform and driving a marked police vehicle. They followed the defendant and learned that his vehicle’s registration sticker had expired. When the defendant stopped at an intersection, the officers pulled up next to him and were able to see that his car had valid, but expired inspection and emission stickers, as well. Based on these observations, the officers decided to conduct a traffic stop. They activated their lights and sirens. The defendant eventually pulled over in a parking lot.
The officers exited their patrol car and approached the defendant’s car. One went to the driver’s side door and one went to the passenger side door. The officers testified that the defendant was nervous, acting kind of strangely, and told them that he did not have a license in this country. More officers arrived, and eventually one of the officers observed a large bulge in the defendant’s jacket. The defendant kept reaching for it, so the officers asked him if he had any weapons on him. He began to get very agitated, so the police told the defendant that they were going to have to remove him from the car. As they tried to remove him, the defendant took off at a high rate of speed, crossed four lanes of traffic, and ran a red light. Officers followed him for a while but eventually gave up the chase due to safety concerns. They later found the car abandoned. However, because they had already run his information through the system, they had his name and were able to get an arrest warrant. They arrested him five months later pursuant to the warrant and charged him with Fleeing or Eluding.
The defendant also tried to testify at trial. He testified that the officers were belligerent and kept punching his car right before he fled. He also tried to testify that he fled because he was afraid for his life, but the trial court precluded him from testifying to that effect. The court convicted him of fleeing and sentenced him to 9-18 months of incarceration followed by three years of probation. The defendant appealed.
The Criminal Appeal
The defendant appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, he argued that the trial court deprived him of the right to a fair trial and due process by preventing him from raising the personal safety defense. In general, the fleeing statute provides:
“Any driver of a motor vehicle who willfully fails or refuses to bring his vehicle to a stop, or who otherwise flees or attempts to elude a pursuing police officer, when given a visual and audible signal to bring the vehicle to a stop, commits an offense.” 75 Pa.C.S. § 3733(a).
In most cases, fleeing or eluding is a felony of the third degree. At the same time, the statute provides a specific defense to the charges:
"It is a defense to prosecution under this section if the defendant can show by a preponderance of the evidence that the failure to stop immediately for a police officer's vehicle was based upon a good faith concern for personal safety."
The statute provides a number of factors for a court to consider when evaluating whether the defendant had a good faith concern for personal safety. In determining whether the defendant has met this burden, the court may consider the following factors:
(i) The time and location of the event.
(ii) The type of police vehicle used by the police officer.
(iii) The defendant's conduct while being followed by the police officer.
(iv) Whether the defendant stopped at the first available reasonably lighted or populated area.
(v) Any other factor considered relevant by the court.
Prior to trial, the judge held a conference in chambers to discuss the case. The criminal defense lawyer told the judge that the defense intended to assert the personal safety defense through the cross-examination of the Commonwealth’s witnesses and the testimony of the defendant. The trial judge, however, ruled that the court would not allow the defendant to assert the defense. Essentially, the trial judge conducted his own evaluation of the factors, compared that to the Commonwealth’s allegations, and found that the defendant could not credibly assert the defense. Therefore, the judge refused to instruct the jury on the availability of the defense and prevented the defendant from testifying that he fled because he was afraid that the officers were going to harm him.
PA Superior Court Recognizes the Personal Safety Defense in Fleeing Cases
The Superior Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and awarded him a new trial. The court found that the trial judge violated the defendant’s right to due process by preventing him from asserting a statutorily-available defense and testifying to his belief that he had to flee out of concerns for his own safety. The court found that the above factors are simply factors which the fact-finder, in this case the jury, must consider in deciding whether the defendant is entitled to the defense. They are not elements of the defense that must be met prior to trial – they are just things to consider when the jury is deliberating. Thus, the trial judge may not preclude a defendant from testifying and trying to establish a good faith fear for personal safety.
The court also noted that the defendant’s subjective belief, which would have been established through the defendant’s testimony, was relevant to the defense because in order to assert the defense, the defendant must actually hold the subjective belief that the police are going to harm him. At the same time, the defendant must also hold that belief in good faith. But part of analyzing whether the defendant holds the belief in good faith means allowing the defendant to testify as to what he thought would happen and why. The trial court erred by taking the above factors as a prerequisite to the defendant testifying instead of simply factors to consider. Accordingly, the court awarded the defendant a new trial and ordered that he be permitted to present a full defense.
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