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June 2022 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Jul 01, 2022 | 0 Comments

This month on SCOPABlog, the Court issued five precedential opinions and eleven grants of allocatur

On the opinion side, the Court issued two opinions refining its "illegal sentence" doctrines, one of the more confusing areas of Pennsylvania criminal law, in part because the phrase "illegal sentence" has been used somewhat haphazardly in three different contexts.  First, a claim of an "illegal sentence" is exempt from judicially developed issue-preservation requirements and cannot be waived at any time.  Second, a claim of an "illegal sentence" is shorthand for, and has been jurisprudentially blended with, statues providing for collateral relief from sentences which "exceed the lawful maximum" under the PCRA.  And third, some claims of an "illegal sentence" are actually claims that a sentence was inadvertently entered, as evidenced by its clear conflict with black letter law, and thus amenable to correction under a court's inherent power to correct its records.  Over the years, the categories have tended to bleed between one another.  

In Prinkey, the Court provided a fairly accessible general discussion of what kinds of claims challenge "illegal sentences" for purposes of the PCRA: those impacting a trial court's authority to impose a particular sentence, as opposed to its exercise of that authority, and concluded that a claim that a prosecutor vindictively invoked a mandatory minimum sentence in retaliation for a defendant's successful challenge to an earlier sentence, insofar as it constitutes a claim that the prosecutor vindictively deprived the trial court of authority to impose a lesser sentence, satisfies the test.  Prinkey's discussion in this regard comes at what seems to be the conclusion of a long line of cases, initiated by then-Justice, now-Chief Justice Baer, advancing its basic proposition, and is likely to be the starting point for claims of illegal sentence under the PCRA going forward.  

In Thorne, the court holds that claims challenging "illegal sentences" for purposes of waiver include challenges to sexual offender registration and notification requirements as unconstitutional on the ground that facts triggering them are not submitted to a jury.  The holding is curious because, as Chief Justice Baer argued in dissent, there is as yet no authority for the proposition that those requirements are sentences at all, but, rather, by all accounts, they are currently cognized as collateral civil consequences of conviction.  Although, in this author's opinion, Chief Justice Baer's point is well taken, the holding is essentially that where a litigant claims that a collateral civil consequence is actually a sentence, and an illegal one, he will be given the benefit of the doubt for purposes of issue-preservation.

On the allocatur side, the most newsworthy case is going to be Barris, in which the Court will be considering zoning restrictions on target-shooting in the wake of increasingly gun-friendly federal constitutional jurisprudence, and whether the contours of the right to bear arms embrace a right to become proficient in the use of them, and to do so in private residences.  Whatever the Court decides, it seems likely that the litigants could be headed to Washington before the case is over.  That said, I'm most interested in Sullivan, in which the Court will be revisiting its 2014 decision partially-adopting the Third Restatement's approach to the admissibility of industry and regulatory standards in products liability actions.  The Court in 2014 was quite differently composed than it is now, the chief (no pun intended) difference being the current absence of then-Justice Thomas Saylor, who steadfastly advocated for adopting the Third Restatement, combined with the now-presence of several new justices whose views often align with plaintiffs in civil actions.  Sullivan will be important not only for its holding and its application in product liability actions, but also as a marker of just how different the Court is today as it pertains to civil cases.

Precedential Opinions

Commonwealth v. Prinkey, 23 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a challenge to a vindictively-invoked mandatory minimum sentence sounds in the legality of sentencing for purposes of the PCRA and is cognizable pursuant to the PCRA)

Commonwealth v. Thorne, 20 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that a challenge to the constitutionality of sexual offender registration and notification requirements sounds in the legality of sentencing for purposes of issue-preservation requirements and is therefore not waivable)

In re: Estate of Jabbour, 13 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that the six-month time period for spousal-share election applies equally to revocations of such elections)

Allocatur Grants

Auue, Inc. v. Borough of Jefferson Hills, 238 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider several issues regarding the authority and competing authority of zoning hearing boards and zoning officers)

Ferguson v. PennDOT, 28 MAL 202 (granting review to consider whether enhanced license suspensions based on a defendant's acceptance of DUI-related alternative rehabilitative disposition violate due process)

Commonwealth v. Rollins, 27 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether a DUI statute lacks a maximum term of imprisonment and is unconstitutionally vague)

Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Assn. v. Campbell, 677 & 678 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider the status of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association with respect to the Right-to-Know Law)

Vinculum, Inc. v. Goli Technologies, LLC, 682 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider a trial court's refusal to enforce a contractual provision for breach-of-contract-related attorneys' fees and in limiting questioning on damages to one year post-breach)

Bindas v. PennDOT, 184 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider the gravity and effect of eminent-domain recording and indexing requirements)

Sullivan v. Werner Company, 324 EAL 2021 (granting review to consider the admissibility of industry and regulatory standards in a products liability action)

Commonwealth v. McGinnis, 204 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider the admissibility of generalized expert testimony about false memories in a prosecution for child sexual abuse)

Barris v. Stroud Twp., 363 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether a zoning ordinance restricting target-shooting violates the federal constitutional right to bear arms)

Klar v. Dairy Farmers of America, Inc., 25 WAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether dram-shop principles apply to a partially-social host)

Rush v. Erie Ins. Exch., 37 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider a regular-use exclusion in an auto insurance policy violates the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law)

About the Author

Corrie Woods

Corrie is our primary litigator, and focuses his practice on appellate, criminal, and post-conviction cases. Corrie also authors the firm's blog, SCOPABlog, which is the only regularly updated blog providing comprehensive coverage of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's docket. Corrie became an a...


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