PA Superior Court: Guilty Plea Invalid Where Defendant Not Warned of Obligation to Pay Restitution

Commonwealth v. Rotola

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Rotola, holding that the trial court may not order restitution at sentencing in a plea bargained case unless the defendant agreed to restitution as part of the plea bargain.

Theft of Property Lost, Mislaid or Delivered by Mistake and Restitution

In Rotola, the defendant pleaded guilty to theft of property lost, mislaid or delivered by mistake as a misdemeanor of the first degree. The court ordered Rotola to serve 9-24 months, less one day, of incarceration and pay restitution in the amount of $25,000, jointly and severally with his co-defendant. Initially, the court found Rotola solely responsible for the theft of $25,000 in jewelry. However, after Rotola filed a post-sentence motion to reconsider, the trial court made Rotola jointly and severally liable with his co-defendant.

Given the extremely high restitution figure, Rotola appealed. On appeal, Rotola argued that the restitution amount was both not supported by the record and not the direct result of his conduct. Rotola pleaded guilty to theft as a misdemeanor of the first degree, and theft as an M1 indicates that the property stolen was worth less than $2,000. Thus, Rotola argued that it was excessive to impose a restitution amount so far exceeding $2,000 when he pleaded guilty to an offense which suggested the restitution should only be $2,000. He also argued that he was not as culpable as his co-defendant who had actually stolen the property as his role in the crime was to sell only a portion of the stolen goods to a pawn shop.

The Pennsylvania Restitution Statute

The statute governing restitution in criminal cases makes restitution mandatory regardless of ability to pay. It provides:

§ 1106. Restitution for injuries to person or property

(a) GENERAL RULE.-- Upon conviction for any crime wherein property has been stolen, converted or otherwise unlawfully obtained, or its value substantially decreased as a direct result of the crime, or wherein the victim suffered personal injury directly resulting from the crime, the offender shall be sentenced to make restitution in addition to the punishment prescribed therefor.

(c) MANDATORY RESTITUTION.--

(1) The court shall order full restitution: (i) Regardless of the current financial resources of the defendant, so as to provide the victim with the fullest compensation for the loss.

(2) At the time of sentencing the court shall specify the amount and method of restitution. In determining the amount and method of restitution, the court:

(i) Shall consider the extent of injury suffered by the victim, the victim’s request for restitution . . . and such other matters as it deems appropriate.

(ii) May order restitution in a lump sum, by monthly installments or according to such other schedule as it deems just.

(4) (i) It shall be the responsibility of the district attorneys of the respective counties to make a recommendation to the court at or prior to the time of sentencing as to the amount of restitution to be ordered. This recommendation shall be based upon information solicited by the district attorney and received from the victim.

(ii) Where the district attorney has solicited information from the victims as provided in subparagraph (i) and has received no response, the district attorney shall, based on other available information, make a recommendation to the court for restitution.

Restitution in Theft Cases

After Rotola appealed, the Superior Court rejected his second argument, finding that because the defendants acted together criminally to cause a single harm to the victim, both defendants were responsible for the full restitution despite Rotola being somewhat less involved.

The Court, however, agreed with the first argument. It found that there was no agreement as to restitution and no suggestion in the record that Rotola would be responsible for restitution. The plea paperwork did not suggest that he would be responsible for restitution, and the oral colloquy conducted by the sentencing judge did not inform Rotola that he would be responsible for restitution. Given the complete absence of any mention of restitution on the record, the Superior Court agreed with Rotola that the guilty plea to theft could not have been knowing, intentional, and voluntary. Therefore, the Court reversed the conviction and ordered that the plea be withdrawn.

Although the restitution statute makes restitution mandatory, a defendant must be advised of the possibility of having to pay restitution in order for a plea to be valid. The Court specifically required that the defendant be warned on the record of the possibility of having to pay restitution, and the Court also required that the sentencing court follow the procedures specified by the statute, meaning a court is required to hold a hearing and determine the amount of restitution at the time of sentencing. Because Rotola was never informed that he would have to pay restitution, his plea was withdrawn and the court remanded the case for trial.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

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