The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Pope, holding that the gradation of an unlawful contact with minor charge must take an acquittal on more serious charges into account. This is because the unlawful contact with a minor provides that unlawful contact shall either be graded as a felony of the third degree or the same as the most serious sexual offense that the defendant is alleged to have committed. In this case, the defendant was acquitted of first-degree-felony Attempted Involuntary Deviate Sexual Contact, and therefore the trial court erred in grading the unlawful contact with a minor charge as a felony of the first degree at sentencing.
The Facts of Pope
In Pope, the Commonwealth alleged that the minor complainant lived with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, the defendant, from the age of three years old until she turned thirteen. At some point, the complainant began dating someone her own age. The complainant accused the defendant of extorting her for sexual favors in exchange for permission to visit her boyfriend. Specifically, she testified that she had to give the defendant a hand job for a two hour visit, two hand jobs for a four hour visit, or a blow job for a full day visit with her boyfriend. She testified that this happened on numerous occasions. She also claimed that on one occasion, the defendant attempted to have anal sex with her.
The complainant eventually told a friend that this had been happening, and her father eventually learned of the allegations. Her father took her to the police station to make a report. Police eventually charged the defendant with attempted involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (“IDSI”), aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, one count of unlawful contact with a minor, and one count of corruption with minors. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of unlawful contact with a minor and corruption of minors. The jury acquitted him of the other offenses. At sentencing, the trial court graded the unlawful contact with minors charge as a felony of the first degree and sentenced the defendant to 62-124 months’ incarceration. The defendant appealed, and the Superior Court denied the appeal.
PCRA Challenge to the Illegal Sentence
After the Superior Court denied the appeal, the defendant filed a timely Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition, eventually alleging, among other things, that his trial and appellate attorneys provided the ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to challenge the F1 gradation of the unlawful contact with minors charge. The trial court dismissed the petition, and the defendant appealed the denial of the PCRA to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. This time, the Superior Court granted relief.
The Superior Court Appeal
Initially, the defendant claimed that he had received the ineffective assistance of counsel because his prior attorneys failed to challenge the gradation of the unlawful contact charge. The Superior Court, however, concluded that it had the power to correct an illegal sentence even on the direct appeal of a timely PCRA Petition and that it did not have to reach the issue of whether the prior attorneys were ineffective. Instead, the Superior Court simply agreed with the defendant.
Section 6318 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code defines unlawful contact with a minor as follows:
(a) Offense defined.--A person commits an offense if he is intentionally in contact with a minor, or a law enforcement officer acting in the performance of his duties who has assumed the identity of a minor, for the purpose of engaging in an activity prohibited under any of the following, and either the person initiating the contact or the person being contacted is within this Commonwealth:
(1) Any of the offenses enumerated in Chapter 31 (relating to sexual offenses).
(2) Open lewdness as defined in section 5901 (relating to open lewdness).
(3) Prostitution as defined in section 5902 (relating to prostitution and related offenses).
(4) Obscene and other sexual materials and performances as defined in section 5903 (relating to obscene and other sexual materials and performances).
(5) Sexual abuse of children as defined in section 6312 (relating to sexual abuse of children).
(6) Sexual exploitation of children as defined in section 6320 (relating to sexual exploitation of children).
(b) Grading.--A violation of subsection (a) is:
(1) an offense of the same grade and degree as the most serious underlying offense in subsection (a) for which the defendant contacted the minor; or
(2) a felony of the third degree; whichever is greater.
Thus, the key issue in the appeal was what the most serious underlying offense in subsection (a) for which the defendant contacted the minor would be following the jury’s acquittal on the most serious charge of IDSI. In general, the Commonwealth does not even have to charge a defendant with other offenses in order to pursue a prosecution for unlawful contact. Instead, the Commonwealth would simply allege unlawful contact with a minor, and if the prosecution could prove that the contact was for the purpose of committing IDSI (for example by obtaining oral or anal sex), then the unlawful contact would be properly graded as an F1.
The analysis changes, however, when a jury acquits the defendant of specific charges. Where the jury acquits the defendant of more serious charges, the sentencing court is not permitted to guess which offense the defendant sought to commit when he contacted the minor. Instead, the sentencing court should apply the default gradation of a felony of the third degree. Further, the jury instructions did not provide any clarification in this case as to which offense the jury found the defendant had attempted to commit. Therefore, the Superior Court reversed the sentence and found that the defendant should have been sentenced on unlawful contact with a minor as a felony of the third degree. The defendant will receive a new sentence, and it will necessarily be shorter because the maximum sentence for a felony of the third degree is 3.5-7 years’ incarceration.
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