The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Ligon, holding that the trial court abused its discretion when it dismissed a criminal case due to the late arrival of witnesses despite the fact that the prosecutor indicated that he was ready to begin the trial and that they were on their way.
Commonwealth v. Ligon
Philadelphia police arrested the defendant in March 2012 and charged him with multiple crimes, including charges of robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, and various violations of the Uniform Firearms Act. The charges stemmed from an alleged incident that took place in September 2011 involving a Mr. Brady and his grandmother Ms. Martin.
The defendant’s case would be subsequently continued five times before his preliminary hearing was held and the municipal court judge found that there was enough evidence to go to trial on the charges. After his preliminary hearing, his case was then assigned to a Court of Common Pleas judge. When it reached the trial room, his case again was continued a “copious” amount of times. Eventually, his case again was continued and then reassigned to a different trial judge. This trial judge then granted two more continuances, one due to a court conflict and one because the assigned prosecutor had another trial.
The trial finally began on December 5, 2016 and on that day, the parties picked a jury. The following morning, before the jury came into the courtroom, the assigned prosecutor told the trial court that the complaining witnesses had not arrived. The prosecutor stated that although she had arranged a ride for the complaining witnesses, they did not answer the door. The prosecutor further stated that she had been in constant contact with them, having spoken with both the day before trial and having met with one of them on the Friday preceding trial. Based on these conversations, the prosecutor asked for “a little bit more time” for the witnesses to arrive. The trial court said that it could “probably give [the Commonwealth] till 11 [AM].”
When the court reconvened at 11:00 AM, a different prosecutor addressed the court and explained that the probation officer of Mr. Brady was attempting to contact him and that the Commonwealth had arranged for additional transportation to get him because Mr. Brady was in a wheelchair. The trial court then stated that it would recess the proceedings until 11:45 AM. At 12:00 PM, the assigned prosecutor stated that the witnesses were “on their way” and that she was ready to proceed with trial and asked if she could begin with her opening statement. The trial court replied that the witnesses were supposed to be there at 9:30 AM. The prosecutor then repeated that the witnesses were on their way. She then stated that she could do the opening statement and then put on another witness by the end of which she was “absolutely certain” the complaining witnesses would arrive. The trial court declined to allow the prosecutor to proceed with her case and discharged the case against the defendant. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion when it discharged the case against the defendant.
What is the Abuse of Discretion Standard?
It can often be difficult for an appellant to win a case on an abuse of discretion standard. The abuse of discretion standard requires appellate courts to give great deference to the trial court in making its decision. As stated in a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, an abuse of discretion only occurs “where the trial court misapplies the law, or where the judgment is exercised is manifestly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will.” Further, appellate courts are not supposed to step in the shoes of the trial court. As such, this standard can be very difficult to win under, and usually the appellate courts will defer to the trial court. It is worth noting that it is usually defendants who, on appeal, argue that the trial court abused its discretion.
The Superior Court’s Decision
The Superior Court held that the trial court abused its discretion when it discharged the case against the defendant. In its brief opinion, the Superior Court stated that a trial court must take into account the public interest when determining whether to dismiss a case. The Superior Court stated that the trial court did not do this. The Superior Court’s opinion omits any real discussion on why the public interest was harmed by the dismissal of this case. Further, the Superior Court essentially stated that trial courts are to assume that prosecutors are telling the truth when they say they will be ready for a case.
Further, the Superior Court cited Commonwealth v. Carson in support of its position that the trial court abused its discretion. Carson is easily distinguishable from the instant case. In Carson, the trial court stated the reason the case was discharged was because of its court schedule and specifically chastised the Allegheny District Attorney’s Office for its tardiness and its excuses. In the instant case, the trial court did not state its schedule was the reason why the case was being discharged. It stated that the case had not gone to trial in the 1,782 days after the complaint had been filed. Further, it ignored the fact that the Commonwealth offered no corroborative evidence that their witnesses were actually coming to court. As such, the only evidence to support this was the Commonwealth’s representations. Nonetheless, the Superior Court still found that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the case and therefore the defendant will have to face trial for these charges (assuming the witnesses actually show up to court).
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