The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Ouch, holding that the Commonwealth produced sufficient evidence of first-degree felony Robbery at the preliminary hearing where the Commonwealth showed that the defendant committed a retail theft and then reached for a gun after being stopped by the store’s loss prevention officer. The court found that although there was some evidence that the loss prevention officer may not have actually seen the gun, the trial court improperly dismissed the first-degree felony charge after erroneously weighing the evidence and resolving conflicts in the testimony. Instead, because the Commonwealth receives the benefit of any reasonable inferences at a preliminary hearing, the court should have accepted the security guard’s testimony that the defendant tried to pull a gun on him despite video evidence which was arguably to the contrary. Further, the focus of the inquiry at the preliminary hearing is on the likely intent of the defendant, not the subjective belief of the complainant.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Ouch
A Philadelphia police officer responded to a radio call for a robbery in progress at a local market. Upon arrival, the complainant and a uniformed security officer both stated that an Asian male described as 5’6 and 150 pounds in his 20’s or 30’s wearing a gray Phillies hat, gray hooded sweatshirt with white design on the front was attempting to shoplift seafood. Witnesses testified that when store security attempted to stop the male in the doorway, the male attempted to pull a firearm from his waistband. The security guard smacked the man’s hand away, and the man fled the parking lot in a white Toyota Corolla. This incident was caught on camera. A detective then viewed the video of the incident and immediately recognized the defendant. The defendant was subsequently arrested on an arrest warrant by Philadelphia Police.
The defendant later appeared in court for his preliminary hearing. The Commonwealth called the security guard to testify as a witness at the preliminary hearing. He testified that at the direction of his manager, he stopped “an Asian guy” whom he described as 5’5 and wearing a gray shirt, hat, sneakers, and blue jeans on suspicion of shoplifting. The Commonwealth then played a video of the incident. The security officer identified on the video the point at which the defendant reached for his waistband. When asked what he did in response to this, the security officer replied “[p]ushed back off…because he reached for a gun so I said, I told the manager, ‘we ain’t dying for this.’”
On cross-examination, the security guard acknowledged that although he saw the defendant reach for something, he did not know what it was. He further conceded that when he saw the defendant reach for his waist, he did not know what he was reaching for because he had taken his eyes off of him. Additionally, the defendant never brandished a weapon nor pointed a gun in front of him. Based on the Superior Court’s opinion, the only time that the security guard saw the gun was when the defendant had his back to him as he was fleeing the market.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge held the defendant for all charges except for robbery in the first degree. The court instead downgraded the robbery charge to robbery as a felony of the third degree. The Commonwealth filed a motion to re-file the charge of robbery graded as a first-degree felony. The defendant’s defense attorney filed a motion to quash seeking the dismissal of all charges based on a lack of evidence.
At a hearing on the two motions, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge denied the Commonwealth’s request to re-file the charge of first-degree Robbery, but the judge permitted the Commonwealth to charge the defendant with Robbery as a second-degree felony. The motions judge opined that the Commonwealth did not produce any evidence that the defendant brandished or pointed the gun at either of the witnesses. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the motions court erred in concluding that it did not present sufficient evidence to show that the defendant placed the security guard in fear of immediate serious bodily injury.
What is the difference between Robbery as a first-degree felony and second-degree felony?
In general, Robbery as a first-degree felony is much more serious than Robbery as a felony of the second or third degrees. When Robbery is a first-degree felony, it becomes a crime of violence under Pennsylvania law and therefore a “strike” offense which could trigger a significant mandatory minimum of a decade or more for a defendant who has been convicted of other strike offenses in the past. A conviction for robbery as a second or third degree felony, however, does not trigger a mandatory minimum and calls for a much lesser sentence under the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. The main difference between Robbery as a felony of the first degree and Robbery as a felony of the second degree is that first-degree felony Robbery requires evidence that the defendant caused, attempted to cause, or put the victim in fear of serious bodily injury during the commission of a theft. This typically involves the use of a weapon such as a gun or knife. Robbery as a second degree, however, only requires evidence that the defendant caused, attempted to cause, or put the victim in fear of bodily injury, which is less than serious bodily injury. The fear of bodily injury could come from a verbal threat, shove, or punch. Thus, Robbery as a felony of the second degree is easier for the Commonwealth to prove, and less serious, than Robbery as a felony of the first degree.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?
Preliminary hearings are frequently misunderstood by defendants with no prior contacts with the criminal justice system. In Philadelphia, a defendant will only have a preliminary hearing if they are charged with a felony. Further, the preliminary hearing is not a trial. This means that the purpose is not to determine whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Instead, the purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a case to go to trial. Specifically, in order for a case to proceed beyond the preliminary hearing, the judge must make a determination that a crime occurred and that the accused is probably the perpetrator of that crime. Consequently, the burden of proof is much lower for the Commonwealth at a preliminary hearing than it is at trial. At a preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth must only establish a prima facie case that the defendant was the one who committed said crime. At a trial, however, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. Additionally, all reasonable inferences are given to the Commonwealth, and the evidence must be read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth’s case.
Preliminary hearings can be very frustrating because credibility is also not an issue. In other words, a judge is not supposed to take into consideration how believable the witness is. Rather, the judge is supposed to make a determination based on the record to see if the Commonwealth has put forth enough evidence to go forward with its case. Consequently, when in court, when attorneys argue about the charges following the preliminary hearing, they are usually fighting about whether or not the Commonwealth has established all of the elements of the particular crimes charged. If the court finds that the Commonwealth has met its burden, then a defendant will be “held for court,” which means that he or she will have to face trial or litigate motions. It is important to remember that just because a defendant has been held for court does not mean the defendant has been found guilty. Although preliminary hearings do not allow the defense to challenge the credibility of witnesses, they are still extremely important hearings because they allow for the potential of having charges dismissed or downgraded when the Commonwealth does not have sufficient evidence and for cross-examining witnesses under oath. The record from the preliminary hearing will often turn out to be very valuable later either at trial or at a motion to suppress hearing. For a much more detailed analysis of what happens at a preliminary hearing, please see our blog “What is a Preliminary Hearing? What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing?” https://goldsteinmehta.com/blog/what-happens-at-the-preliminary-hearing.
Superior Court Holds Defendant for Court on First-Degree Felony Robbery
The Superior Court found that the lower courts erred when they discharged the first-degree robbery charge. The Superior Court held that its review of the evidence, when viewing it in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and accepted as true, found that there was sufficient evidence to hold the defendant for trial on the first-degree robbery charge. According to the Superior Court, the security guard’s testimony that the defendant “reached for a gun” and his utterance of “we ain’t dying for this” was sufficient to establish the requisite elements of first-degree robbery. As stated above, according to the Commonwealth’s witness, the defendant did not brandish a gun at him and he did not see what the defendant reached for during their interaction. Further, the security guard did not even see a gun until after the defendant had turned his back to him as he was fleeing the market. Nonetheless, despite all of these deficiencies, the Superior Court found that there was sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case for first-degree robbery and the defendant will now have to go to trial on that charge, as well.
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