The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Delgros. In Delgros, the Court created a new equitable exception which permits a defendant who is convicted of a crime and sentenced only to a fine or to no further penalty to claim ineffective assistance of counsel in a post-sentence motion. Under prior case law interpreting Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, a defendant who was not incarcerated or serving a sentence of probation or parole could not file a PCRA Petition and claim ineffective assistance of counsel in seeking a new trial or sentencing because the PCRA requires that a defendant be serving a sentence.
Commonwealth v. Delgros
Delgros involved the theft of construction materials. The defendant hired the complainant to install a double-wide mobile home on his property. The complainant purchased materials for the project and left some of the materials on the defendant’s property for a period of time, intending to pick them up later. When the complainant returned to pick them up, the materials were gone. The defendant denied knowing what had happened to them. The complainant reported the theft to the police, and the police questioned the defendant. The defendant told the police that he did not know what happened to the materials. He permitted police to search the premises, but the police did not find anything.
Several months later, the defendant and his father hid the materials in the woods. Five to seven years later, the defendant and his father used the materials to build a porch on the defendant’s house. Police subsequently received a report that the defendant had the materials on his porch, and the defendant’s father eventually confessed to the police that the defendant had told him from where the materials came. Police then went to the house armed with a search warrant and saw the stolen materials.
Receiving Stolen Property Charges
Police arrested the defendant and charged him with Receiving Stolen Property as a felony of the third degree. A jury convicted the defendant, and the trial court sentenced him to pay restitution of $2,800 and a fine of $15,000. The court did not sentence him to any jail time or probation. The defendant filed post-sentence motions, claiming that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel from his trial lawyer because his trial lawyer had not properly challenged the gradation of the Receiving Stolen Property charge. He alleged that his trial lawyer should have been able to prove that the value of the materials was less than $2,000. The $2,000 amount is significant because Receiving Stolen Property or Theft of less than $2,000 is a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
Jurisdiction for a PCRA Petition
The trial court denied the post-sentence motions, finding that the defendant could not raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in a post-sentence motion or in a direct appeal. That was the rule prior to this case. Instead, existing Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions required that ineffective assistance of counsel claims be raised in a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition after direct appeals have already been litigated. The defendant appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the result.
Petition for Allowance of Appeal
After the Superior Court affirmed, the defendant filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the appeal and reversed the trial court’s denial of the Post-Sentence Motions without a hearing. The Court recognized that on its face, the Post-Conviction Relief Act requires that a Petitioner be serving a sentence in order to file a Petition and claim ineffective assistance of counsel. Thus, someone who is not sentenced to incarceration or probation cannot file a PCRA based on the language in the statute.
However, the Court noted that previous decisions have created two exceptions to this general rule: First, a defendant may file ineffective assistance claims in post-sentence motions and on direct appeal where the claim of ineffectiveness is apparent from the record and meritorious to the extent that immediate consideration best serves the interests of justice. Second, a defendant may show good cause and knowingly and expressly waive his entitlement to seek subsequent PCRA review from his conviction and sentence.
The Court Creates a New Exception
The defendant argued that the trial court should have entertained his arguments under both exceptions or found that the denial of the opportunity to litigate ineffective assistance issue would violate his Sixth Amendment right to competent representation at trial, thereby depriving him of due process. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed.
The Court recognized that the deferral of ineffective assistance of counsel claims is preferable in most cases, but it recognized the fundamental unfairness of a system in which a defendant could be convicted of a felony due to the incompetent performance of his or her lawyer and then not have the opportunity to challenge the conviction based on that incompetent performance. Therefore, the Court recognized a new exception. Under this case, in order to ensure that criminal defendants are afforded an opportunity to challenge trial counsel’s stewardship, the Court adopted a new exception requiring trial courts to address claims challenging the defense attorney’s performance where the defendant is statutorily precluded from obtaining subsequent PCRA review due to not being sentenced to incarceration or probation.
This exception will provide many defendants with the opportunity to challenge unfair convictions. Previously, defendants convicted of most summaries, many misdemeanors, and even some felonies, would not have been able to ever claim ineffective assistance of counsel because the sentence, if any, would be finished by the time the defendant would have the opportunity to file a PCRA Petition. Now, a defendant who will not be able to file a PCRA Petition may raise those claims in post-sentence motions and request an evidentiary hearing if there is a need to make a record. This decision ensures some degree of basic fairness and that a Court cannot sentence a defendant to no further penalty on a felony charge just to prevent a defendant from appealing based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
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