PA Superior Court: Commonwealth Cannot Appeal Dismissal for Lack of Evidence at Preliminary Hearing, Must Re-File Instead

Commonwealth v. Perez

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Perez, holding that the Commonwealth may not file an interlocutory appeal following the dismissal of charges for lack of evidence at a preliminary hearing. The court held that the Commonwealth must instead re-file the charges and ask that a different magistrate hear the case.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Perez

In Perez, the defendant was charged with first-degree Murder and Possession of an Instrument of Crime (“PIC”). The Commonwealth filed the charges against the defendant in the Philadelphia Municipal Court, and the case was scheduled for a preliminary hearing before a Municipal Court judge. At the conclusion of the hearing, the MC judge dismissed the charges, finding that the Commonwealth failed to establish a prima facie case of Murder or PIC at the preliminary hearing.

The Commonwealth re-filed the charges. When the Commonwealth re-files on homicide charges in Philadelphia, the preliminary hearing takes place again before a judge in the Court of Common Pleas. When the Commonwealth re-files in the suburban counties, a different Magisterial District Justice, or sometimes even the same justice, will hear the case again. In this case, the Common Pleas homicide judge presided over the second preliminary hearing, and the Commonwealth presented additional evidence. Despite the fact that the Commonwealth presented additional evidence, the Common Pleas judge agreed that there was simply not enough evidence to find that the defendant committed the murder. The judge again dismissed the charges, and the Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court.

Why would a case get dismissed at the preliminary hearing?

In a criminal trial before a judge or a jury, the Commonwealth must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or the factfinder must acquit the defendant. The standard at a preliminary hearing, which typically occurs within the first few weeks or months of a case, is much lower. The Commonwealth must only show that a crime occurred and the defendant probably committed it. The Commonwealth is entitled to all reasonable inferences in its favor and in the suburban counties, may generally proceed entirely on hearsay presented by police officers. In Philadelphia, the Commonwealth generally cannot get away with proceeding entirely based on hearsay, but some hearsay is still allowed under the rules. If the Commonwealth fails to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime charged, then the court should dismiss the charge or reduce the gradation to the level that was proven by the prosecution.

Is the case over if it gets dismissed at a preliminary hearing?

There are two main reasons why a case would be dismissed at a preliminary hearing. First, if the prosecution is repeatedly not ready to proceed because witnesses have failed to appear, then the case could be dismissed for lack of prosecution (“DLOP”). In Philadelphia, this typically takes place when the Commonwealth is not ready to go three times in a row. Second, if the prosecution presents a case but the evidence fails to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (51%) that the defendant committed the crimes charged, then the judge should dismiss the charges for lack of evidence (“DLOE”). Both types of dismissals are not necessarily the end of the case because the Commonwealth may re-file the charges. When the Commonwealth re-files the charges, the preliminary hearing will be heard again by a different judge. In Philadelphia, re-filed cases stemming from dismissal for lack of evidence are heard either in Motions court by a Common Pleas judge if it is a non-homicide case or by one of the homicide judges in a murder case. The Common Pleas judge will review the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing and receive any additional evidence which the parties wish to present. In the suburban counties, a Magisterial District Justice will conduct an entirely new preliminary hearing.  

Are there limits on the Commonwealth’s ability to re-file after a dismissal at the preliminary hearing?

Although the Commonwealth may re-file the charges following a dismissal for lack of evidence, the Commonwealth’s ability to re-file is not unlimited. Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that where the charges are repeatedly dismissed by the preliminary hearing magistrates, the successive re-filing of the charges could eventually reach the point of prosecutorial harassment and implicate due process rights. In that case, the charges could be dismissed without prejudice or the trial judge could prohibit the Commonwealth from re-filing the charges. The Commonwealth would then be limited to appealing the case to the Superior Court and asking the Superior Court to find that the evidence presented was sufficient to show that defendant probably committed the crime.

The Criminal Appeal in Perez

In Perez, the Commonwealth re-filed the charges once with the homicide judge in the Court of Common Pleas, and that judge still dismissed the murder charge without prejudice. Instead of attempting to re-file again before a different judge, the Commonwealth filed a motion to reconsider the dismissal order and eventually appealed the case to the Superior Court when that motion to reconsider was denied.

The Superior Court rejected the appeal, however, and refused to reach the merits of the case. The court found that the Commonwealth could not appeal the trial court’s decision because the order dismissing the charges was not a final order. In general, Pennsylvania appellate courts only have jurisdiction over appeals of final orders. A final order is one that disposes of all of the parties and all of the claims, meaning no further action is pending in the trial court. However, when a trial court dismisses criminal charges at a preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth can simply re-file the charges (assuming that they have not re-filed so many times that it would constitute prosecutorial harassment). Therefore, the Superior Court found that the appeal from the dismissal order was interlocutory and premature. The court denied the appeal, finding that the Commonwealth should have simply re-filed instead. Had the dismissal of the charges been with prejudice, meaning that the Commonwealth could not re-file, then the appeal would have been proper. Thus, Perez clearly establishes that the Commonwealth must re-file until no longer allowed before taking an appeal to the Superior Court.

The Impact of Perez

The Superior Court’s decision is somewhat counter-intuitive, but there are still protections for a defendant who is facing criminal charges. First, if more than one judge dismisses the charges, the Commonwealth may decide that they simply do not have a case and give up instead of continuing to re-file the charges. Second, Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that the Commonwealth’s ability to re-file is not limitless. Although there is no set number of times that the Commonwealth may re-file, the courts have found that “[I]f the Commonwealth’s conduct intrudes unreasonably upon the due process right of individuals to be free from governmental coercion, the Commonwealth should not be permitted to present the case repeatedly before successive magistrates.” In practice, this usually means that if the Commonwealth re-files more than once and the case is dismissed two or three times, the courts will likely dismiss the charges with prejudice and prevent the Commonwealth from re-filing. In that case, the Commonwealth could appeal the dismissal of the criminal charges to the Superior Court because that would be a final order. Likewise, where a trial judge in the Court of Common Pleas grants a Motion to Quash (also called a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the suburban counties), the Commonwealth may appeal that ruling to the Superior Court because the Commonwealth is prohibited from simply re-filing in order to evade the Common Pleas judge’s decision quashing the charges.

It is hard to say whether the court’s opinion in Perez benefits the Commonwealth or the defense. In general, allowing the Commonwealth to repeatedly re-file charges can be extremely expensive and stressful for a defendant as the defendant has to repeatedly defend against the charges at successive preliminary hearings. It also allows the Commonwealth to keep trying until the Commonwealth gets a judge that will rubber stamp the charges. At the same time, defending an appeal to the Superior Court is far more complicated, time-consuming and expensive than defending a preliminary hearing. Superior Court appeals can also take years. Therefore, criminal defendants may benefit in terms of cost and obtaining a resolution more quickly as this decision requires the Commonwealth to proceed by re-filing until prohibited by court order from doing so.

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