Violent Crimes

PA Superior Court Limits Collateral Estoppel Defense

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Defense Lawyer

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Defense Lawyer

Pennsylvania law provides a potential defense to some criminal charges called collateral estoppel. Collateral estoppel may apply to bar a second trial in limited circumstances where the defendant has been acquitted of closely related charges in a first trial. The doctrine is somewhat limited in Pennsylvania because juries are not asked to provide an explanation for what they think happened; instead, jurors simply find a defendant guilty or not guilty of charges. The defense may then argue that a re-trial should be barred because a defendant has been acquitted of charges which required the same conduct with which the defendant is again charged in order for the jury to find the defendant guilty in a second trial.

The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Commonwealth v. Winchester provides an example of this potential defense. In Commonwealth v. Winchester, the PA Superior Court found that the Commonwealth was not collaterally estopped from retrying a defendant for human trafficking charges after an acquittal for related robbery and theft charges because the human trafficking charges were significantly different from the related robbery and theft charges.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Winchester

In Winchester, prosecutors alleged that the defendant contacted the complainant on backpage.com. The complainant offered sexual services through an advertisement on this website. The defendant then also contacted the complainant through text messages to set up an appointment. When the defendant arrived at the complainant’s apartment, he was let inside. The complainant was wearing a robe when she answered the door.

When the complainant went to take off her robe, the defendant pulled out a gun and pointed it at her face. The defendant then threatened her with a weapon, zip-tied her, and stole $2,700 from her. The defendant then told her that she could have her money back if she worked for him. The defendant then left her residence and told her he would return by 11:30. After he left, the complainant was able to free herself, and she called the police. The defendant then returned and was promptly arrested. When he was arrested, zip ties were found in his car matching those used to restrain the victim.

The Commonwealth filed a criminal information charging the defendant with robbery, theft by unlawful taking, terroristic threats, trafficking in individuals, and attempted involuntary servitude. At the trial, the complainant testified to the above-stated facts. The defendant also testified. He testified that he and the complainant had a prior relationship and that his communications with her, after finding her on the website, was an effort to confirm his own suspicion that the complainant was prostituting herself. The defendant testified that he called her a “whore,” which upset the complainant. This, arguably, was the reason why the complainant made up these allegations against him. The defendant denied binding her, robbing her, or telling her that he would “pimp” her out. He also testified that the zip ties in his car were related to his construction work.

Following the trial, the jury found the defendant not guilty of robbery, theft by unlawful taking, and terroristic threats. The jury did not reach a verdict on trafficking in individuals and attempted involuntary servitude. On June 5, 2017, the defendant filed a motion for dismissal, arguing that the Commonwealth intended to retry him on the charges of trafficking in individuals and attempted involuntary servitude, but the trial court should apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel and dismiss the remaining charges. A hearing was held on June 26, 2017. On August 14, 2017, the court issued an order granting the defendant’s dismissal motion. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal.

What is Collateral Estoppel?

The doctrine of collateral estoppel is a part of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against Double Jeopardy. It is important to note that the collateral estoppel clause does not automatically bar subsequent prosecution of a defendant. It only bars the re-litigation of a particular issue that has already been decided by a court. What this means is that if an issue of law, fact, or evidentiary ruling has already been decided by a prior court order, the issue cannot be re-litigated in a future lawsuit.

In Pennsylvania, courts will apply the collateral estoppel doctrine if the following threshold requirements were met: 1) the issues in the two actions are sufficiently similar and sufficiently material to justify invoking the doctrine; 2) the issue was actually litigated in the first action; and 3) a final judgment on the specific issue in question was issued in the first action. For collateral estoppel purposes, a final judgment includes any prior adjudication of an issue in another action that is sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect. If the previous adjudication was based on a resolution of an issue in a manner favorable to the defendant with respect to a remaining charge, the Commonwealth is precluded from attempting to re-litigate that issue in an effort to resolve it in a contrary way at a future trial.

This sounds confusing, and it can be. To give a simple example of how collateral estoppel would prevent the Commonwealth from retrying a defendant, let’s assume that a defendant is charged with murder, aggravated assault, and simple assault. The facts of this hypothetical case are that a defendant beats a victim to death with his bare hands. Let’s further assume that after a trial, the jury is unable to reach a verdict on the murder charge, but finds the defendant not guilty of the simple assault charge. Because of the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the Commonwealth would be precluded from prosecuting the defendant on the murder charge because he was found not guilty of the simple assault charge. The reason is because the simple assault was a constituent element of the homicide charge. As such, there was already a finding that the defendant did not assault the victim and consequently the Commonwealth would be precluded from retrying the defendant on the homicide charge.

PA Superior Court Rejects Collateral Estoppel Defense Because of Differences in Statutes

Here, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Superior Court concluded that the defendant’s acquittal of the robbery and theft charges did not negate the necessary elements to potentially convict him of the involuntary servitude or trafficking charges. In other words, a jury could believe that the defendant did not rob the complainant, but he did intend to force her into the sex trade. In making its decision, the Superior Court reviewed the trafficking and involuntary servitude statutes. Based on this review, the Superior Court held that the defendant’s acquittal of the robbery and theft charges did not preclude a subsequent prosecution of the trafficking and involuntary servitude offenses because robbing or stealing from her were not predicate elements of these respective charges. In other words, the defendant could have been trafficking her without robbing her or stealing from her. Therefore, the Commonwealth can retry the defendant on these remaining charges.   

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

PA Superior Court: Defendant Not In Custody Despite Reading of Miranda Warnings During Police Station Interrogation

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coleman, holding that a defendant is not in custody for purposes of Miranda just because the police read him his Miranda warnings in a police station. This case rejects the fundamental right to counsel as well as the obvious reality that a suspect in a murder/arson investigation who has been escorted to the police station and given his Miranda warnings would assume that he or she is not free to leave and is instead under arrest.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Coleman

On March 30, 2017, the Farrell Police Department was investigating an arson that caused the death of a woman. The police suspected that the defendant was involved. Based on these suspicions, the police went to the defendant’s mother’s home in Farrell, Pennsylvania. The police arrived at the residence armed, but they were not wearing their uniforms. After they identified themselves as police officers, they asked the defendant if he could talk, and the defendant allowed the officers to inside the home. Once inside, the officers told the defendant they wanted to speak with him at the nearby police station, which was about 150 yards away. The defendant responded that he would come to the police station later when he could get a ride because it was raining at the time. When the officers offered him a ride, the defendant agreed and grabbed his insulin kit.

The defendant entered the officers’ unmarked car without being handcuffed. He was not frisked, handcuffed, or restrained when he entered the car. After the two-minute drive, they arrived at the police station. The two officers, along with the defendant, walked inside the building which also contained a regional lockup facility. While walking through the facility, they walked past jail cells and eventually entered an interview room. When the defendant entered the room he was still not restrained. The officers subsequently informed him that he was free to leave at any time and permitted him to keep and use his overcoat, hat, and insulin kit.

At some point, the officers then activated the audio/video recording system and read the defendant his Miranda rights. The defendant did not sign the officers’ waiver form. The officers then began asking the defendant about the previously-mentioned arson. After about one minute, the defendant explained that he did not have anything to say about the arson. Per the Pennsylvania Superior Court, he “explicitly, clearly, and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police.” Despite this clear assertion of his rights, the police officers ignored his statement and continued speaking to him. They reiterated to the defendant that he was not in custody and was free to leave at any time. The officers then advised the defendant that he was a suspect, along with another individual. The officers told the defendant that they wanted to show him some photos “to see if it changed his mind.” They then showed the defendant blown-up photographs of the crime scene and the victim’s body. They also showed video from a local gas station where the defendant and the other suspect obtained gasoline. Finally, they told the defendant “disturbing details about the burnt corpse and emphasized that the victim’s children did not have a mother.”

Despite all of this, the defendant continued to deny involvement in the crime. The officers then produced a photograph of the other suspect and explained that they heard that the defendant had started the fire. They further told the defendant that “you know who did this, and whoever comes in first, that is how the story will be told.” In response to this, the defendant “started to reveal names and information about a vehicle and who the owner of the vehicle was and where that individual lived, and eventually told the police that he pointed out the house that he thought the alleged target lived in and that the [other suspect] lit the place up.” The officers then gave the defendant some paper in case he wanted to make a statement and then left the room for three minutes. While the officers were not in the room, the defendant used his insulin kit. He declined to provide a written statement. After the officers returned to the room they arrested him. He was subsequently charged with second-degree murder, aggravated arson, and other related offenses.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress his statements to the police. On October 4, 2017, a hearing was held. The testimony at the motions hearing was consistent with the above-mentioned facts. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress. The trial court found that he “clearly and unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent after he was given his Miranda warnings.” The court observed that the officers ignored his invocation of his right to remain silent so that they could elicit incriminating statements, but the trial court did not find that the defendant was subjected to custodial interrogation. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

What happens if the police do not give Miranda warnings?

Miranda warnings are a frequently misunderstood issue in criminal law. Many people assume that police are required to read Miranda warnings to a suspect anytime they make an arrest or the case will be dismissed. This is not correct. Instead, Miranda is only relevant in a criminal case when a defendant makes a statement in response to questioning by a government official while the defendant was in custodial detention. If a defendant voluntarily blurts out an incriminating statement, then he or she will not be able to argue that this statement should be suppressed because the police failed to give the Miranda warnings. Further, if the police detain someone for an “investigatory detention,” rather than a custodial detention, then the police are not necessarily required to provide Miranda warnings prior to asking questions. For this reason, police do not typically have to provide Miranda warnings during many routine traffic stops. Traffic stops, however, can rise to the level of an arrest, and at that point, the police would be required to provide warnings.

Determining whether a statement should be suppressed because of the failure to administer Miranda warnings is a very fact intensive analysis. First, a court must look and see whether the question or statement made by the police itself was reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response. Usually, this is the least complicated part of the analysis. If a cop asks a defendant “if they did it” or “why did you do it” then those questions are reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response.

The issue that is more complicated is whether the defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda. When these motions are litigated, defense attorneys will routinely ask questions such as: whether the defendant was in handcuffs; whether the officers were uniformed; whether the officers’ guns were visible; the length of the interrogation; the method of questioning; whether the door was closed; whether the defendant was offered anything to eat; etc. By doing this, the defense attorney is trying to establish that the defendant’s liberty was so restrained that he was in custody for purposes of Miranda. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court will make a finding based on the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the defendant’s statement should be suppressed. If the court grants a defendant’s motion to suppress it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that the case will be dismissed. It only means that the Commonwealth cannot use the defendant’s statement in its case-in-chief. For a more detailed analysis on when the police are required to administer Miranda warnings, please see our blog “What Happens if the Police Don’t Give Miranda Warnings?”    

Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds That the Defendant’s Statement Was Not Illegally Obtained.

In a brief analysis, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the lower court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress his statement. The reason was because both the trial court and the Superior Court found that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. Specifically, because he was not threatened, was told that he could leave;,was able to bring his insulin with him, and did not go to the police station against his will, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. The fact that he was administered Miranda warnings while in a police station did not transform this into a custodial interrogation. Because he was not in custody, he was not actually entitled to the warnings, and the police therefore did not have to stop questioning him when he said he did not want to make a statement. Accordingly, the Commonwealth will now be able to use his statement against him at his trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

 

Attorney Goldstein Wins Not Guilty by "Knockout" in F1 Aggravated Assault Case

Aggravated Assault Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Aggravated Assault Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire has continued to rack up wins in the courtroom. In the case of Commonwealth v. J.G., Attorney Goldstein eventually obtained a complete victory in what began as a case of First Degree Felony Aggravated Assault. In that case, prosecutors alleged that J.G. had started a fist fight with a male acquittance. Prosecutors further alleged that during the fight, the girlfriend of one of the participants attempted to separate the two men. When the girlfriend got in between J.G. and the other man, J.G. allegedly punched her in the face twice, causing her to fall and fracture her wrist. She also claimed that she suffered bruising and red marks to her face. Due to the broken bone in her wrist, the prosecution charged J.G. with F1 Aggravated Assault.

Fortunately, J.G. retained Attorney Goldstein for the preliminary hearing in this case. At a preliminary hearing, the defense is generally limited to making legal arguments based on the facts to which the complainant or witness testifies. Despite this limitation, Attorney Goldstein was able to successfully cross-examine the complainant during the preliminary hearing and get her to admit that she had put her hands on J.G. first in order to try to end the fight. She also admitted that a number of other people were involved in the fight and that J.G. had only punched her once while she was holding onto him. With this admission secured, Attorney Goldstein was able to successfully move for the dismissal of the felony charges and a remand to the Philadelphia Municipal Court for a trial on a misdemeanor Simple Assault charge. Aggravated Assault requires not only the causation of serious bodily injury, which is an element that is often satisfied by the presence of a broken bone, but also the intent to cause that serious bodily injury. Pennsylvania case law such as Commonwealth v. Alexander, however, provides that one punch that results in serious bodily injury generally does not provide sufficient evidence of intent to cause serious bodily injury and is therefore usually not an Aggravated Assault absent other extraordinary circumstances. Because the complainant testified that J.G. only punched her once prior to her fall, the Municipal Court judge dismissed the felony charges.

Attorney Goldstein then represented J.G. at the Municipal Court trial and obtained a full acquittal on the remaining charges. Once again, the complainant testified that J.G. started the fight with her boyfriend, that he had punched her, and that he had caused her injuries. However, on cross-examination, she admitted to a number of inconsistencies relating to the nature of her injuries, who had started the fight, how many times she had been punched, and her involvement in the incident. Due to Attorney Goldstein’s extensive and effective cross-examination of the complainant, the complainant eventually recanted most of her story, admitted that her boyfriend had in fact hit J.G. in the face with a rock, and she then stormed out of the court-room. With the witness having left mid-trial, the Municipal Court judge immediately found J.G. Not Guilty of all charges, resulting in a complete win in an Aggravated Assault case. J.G. will be eligible for an expungement of the charges.

PA Superior Court: Out-Of-State Sale of Drugs Not a Defense to Drug Delivery Resulting in Death Prosecution

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Peck, holding that a defendant can be convicted of drug delivery resulting in death in Pennsylvania even if the defendant sold the drugs in a different state. This decision is concerning because it exposes people to more criminal liability for actions that occurred outside of Pennsylvania.  

Commonwealth v. Peck

The decedent lived in York County, Pennsylvania with his father. The decedent texted the defendant, and they met at a convenience store located ten miles south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland. At the meeting in Maryland, the defendant sold the decedent heroin. After this meeting, the two continued to text. The decedent expressed concern that the heroin looked like a “rock,” to which the defendant replied that the heroin was “off the brick, purest of the pure” and told the decedent to try it. Further messages indicated that the decedent tried the heroin and then thanked the defendant for it.

The next day, the decedent’s father discovered the decedent. He was hunched over on the floor, and his body was stiff. His face was blue and had blood on it. His father immediately called 911. A Pennsylvania State Trooper responded to the call and found a “rock” of heroin on the decedent’s nightstand. He also found the decedent’s cell phone and read the text messages between the decedent and the defendant.

A criminal complaint was filed against the defendant charging him with possession with the intent to deliver (“PWID”) and drug delivery resulting in death. The defendant then filed a motion to dismiss the PWID charge because he sold the drugs in Maryland. However, the defendant did not file a motion to dismiss the drug delivery resulting in death charge. At the motions hearing, the Commonwealth conceded the motion to dismiss the PWID charge. The defendant then went to trial on the drug delivery resulting in death charge. A York County jury found the defendant guilty of drug delivery resulting in death despite the fact that the drugs had not been sold in Pennsylvania.

At the sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced the defendant to the statutory maximum sentence of twenty to forty years’ imprisonment. The defendant then filed timely post-sentence motions requesting the dismissal of the conviction or a re-sentencing hearing. These motions were denied. The defendant then filed an appeal. His appeal focused on two issues: 1) whether the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction because he sold the drugs in Maryland, and 2) whether the trial court erred in imposing the statutory maximum sentence. For purposes of this post, only the issue of whether the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant of drug delivery resulting in death will be discussed. However, for a more detailed analysis of a judge’s discretion in sentencing, please see our blog posts on the Superior Court’s decisions in Commonwealth v. Sarvey and Commonwealth v. Conte.

What is the crime of Drug Delivery Resulting in Death?  

18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2506 is the statute that governs the crime of drug delivery resulting in death. A person commits this offense if the person intentionally administers, dispenses, delivers, gives, etc. any controlled substance or counterfeit substance, in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, and another person dies as a result of using the substance. A defendant does not have to intend to kill the decedent to be convicted of this crime. Instead, the defendant must only intend to provide the decedent with the controlled substance. Further, a defendant can be found guilty even if the decedent has a controlled substance in their system other than the one that the defendant provided to the complainant. To convict, the Commonwealth only must show that the controlled substance that was given to the decedent was a direct and substantial factor in causing their death.

How Does Jurisdiction Work in Criminal Cases?

Jurisdiction can be a complicated issue. Even though the defendant in Commonwealth v. Peck did not technically argue that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear his case, his argument on appeal was basically a jurisdictional argument. As a preliminary matter, there are multiple types of jurisdiction. The subsequent paragraphs in this section will discuss the most common jurisdictional issues in criminal cases. However, if you are charged with a crime where you believe that jurisdiction may be an issue, you need an experienced defense attorney to handle your case.

The most basic example of jurisdiction is when it is based on geography. If a defendant commits a crime in Pennsylvania, usually only Pennsylvania would have jurisdiction to hear the case. A different state (i.e. New York) probably would not have jurisdiction over the case because the crime did not occur there. However, as Commonwealth v. Peck shows, Pennsylvania can have jurisdiction over a defendant when he commits a crime in a different state but the defendant’s actions have a consequence or “result” in Pennsylvania.

Another example of jurisdiction is federal and state jurisdiction. The federal government has jurisdiction over some offenses that states do not have (i.e. immigration offenses). However, there are plenty of crimes for which the federal government and the states share jurisdiction. For example, both the state and federal government have jurisdiction over cases involving drugs and guns. Unfortunately, as of now, state and federal governments can both prosecute a defendant for the exact same crime. This issue is currently before the United States Supreme Court, however most legal experts do not expect the Supreme Court to overturn this principle. In Pennsylvania, prosecutors may not file charges if the federal government has already prosecuted a defendant. The federal government, however, is not limited from filing charges even if a defendant has already been prosecuted in Pennsylvania state court.   

Jurisdiction is also relevant in determining whether a police officer legally stopped someone. Some police officers have very limited authority. For example, the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (hereinafter “SEPTA”) police officers do not have the same authority as regular Philadelphia Police Officers. SEPTA police officers are restricted to areas involving SEPTA property and customers. However, just because a police officer does not have jurisdiction to stop you does not mean that a court lacks jurisdiction over you to hear your case. As stated above, jurisdiction can be a very complicated issue, and if your case involves different jurisdictions, then you need an attorney who is knowledgeable on these complex issues.

What is the remedy if a court or police officer does not have jurisdiction to arrest me or hear my case?

There are different remedies for whether a court lacks jurisdiction versus whether a police officer lacks jurisdiction. If a court lacks jurisdiction, then the remedy is the dismissal of the case. This is what happened with the PWID charge in Commonwealth v. Peck. Because the PWID occurred in Maryland, the charge was dismissed. If Maryland wanted to prosecute the defendant, then they likely could, and he would not be able to get the case dismissed on jurisdiction grounds. However, if a police officer who lacks jurisdiction arrests a defendant, then the case will not be automatically dismissed. Instead, what will happen is that a defendant will be able to argue that the evidence seized as a result of the illegal seizure should be suppressed because the police officer lacked the authority, or jurisdiction, to stop the defendant in the first place.

Pennsylvania Superior Court affirms the defendant’s conviction

In a very limited opinion, the Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction. The Superior Court rejected the defendant’s argument that there was not sufficient evidence to convict him of drug delivery in resulting in death because he sold the drugs to the decedent in Maryland. The Superior Court stated because the decedent died in Pennsylvania, there was sufficient evidence to convict him. In other words, the Superior Court stated it was inconsequential that the defendant sold the drugs in Maryland for him to be convicted of drug delivery resulting in death. Further, the Superior Court also affirmed his sentence, so he will not get a new sentencing hearing.   

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.