Commonwealth v. Godson - Is Hearsay Admissible During a Probation Violation Hearing?
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Godson, reaffirming prior holdings in which the courts have held that hearsay is not ordinarily admissible at a violation of probation hearing. In Godson, which is an unpublished opinion, the Court recognized the general rule in Pennsylvania that in order for hearsay to be admissible at a violation of probation or Gagnon II hearing, the Commonwealth must show "good cause."
In Godson, the defendant originally entered a guilty plea to charges of Aggravated Assault by Prisoner. He received a sentence of 6-23 months of incarceration followed by two years of reporting probation. The defendant quickly violated that probation in a number of different ways, including by failing to participate in court-ordered mental health treatment. In response, the probation officer moved to revoke his probation, and the trial court held a violation of probation hearing.
At the hearing, the court heard from a staff member from the mental health facility at which the defendant had sporadically obtained treatment. The staff member testified that he learned from other staff members that the defendant had been disruptive and attempted to escape from the facility. The defendant broke a window as part of his attempted escape. Although the staff member who testified at the hearing had no personal knowledge of the broken window or attempted escape, the trial judge revoked the defendant's probation, re-sentenced him, and ordered that the defendant pay restitution for the cost of the fixing the broken window.
The Appeal of the Violation of Probation Sentence
The defendant appealed, and the Superior Court reversed the restitution order. The Superior Court noted that it is well-settled that the Confrontation Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the use of hearsay testimony against a defendant at a probation hearing without a finding by the trial court of good cause. Here, the parties agreed that the trial judge failed to make any finding with respect to whether there was good cause for allowing the staff member who had no personal knowledge to testify about the broken window and the cost of replacing it. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's order and remanded it for further proceedings.
The Rule Against Hearsay at a Probation Hearing
The rule against hearsay at a probation revocation hearing is extremely important. Prosecutors and probation officers in Philadelphia often attempt to introduce hearsay at Gagnon II hearings as it is much simpler and easier for them than actually requiring live witnesses to appear. This is particularly true in cases where defendants are under supervision for convictions relating to domestic violence. In domestic violence cases, it is not uncommon for the problems which led to the defendant's criminal charges to continue even after he or she has been put on probation. In some cases, the complainant from the original case will call the probation officer and make new accusations, and the probation officer will then bring those accusations to the judge without asking the complainant to appear for the hearing. It is fundamentally unfair for a defendant to face a probation violation without having the opportunity to cross-examine the accuser. Therefore, this rule protects the rights of the defendant to challenge the accusations against him or her in open court and makes sure that the judge does not have to make a ruling based entirely on hearsay.
Probation Violation? We Can Help.
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