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October 2020 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Nov 02, 2020 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 13 precedential opinions (linked below) and 2 orders granting allocatur.

On the opinion side, the Court's decisions in Small and Chmiel are boons for criminal defense attorneys. In Small, the Court abrogated the presumption that petitioners for relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act are aware of matters of public record — as in all matters of public record — for purposes of the exception to the time-bar provisions of the PCRA for claims predicated on newly discovered facts. The presumption was never factually justified — the notion that the average prisoner is combing through the Federal Register is facially absurd — but was viewed as legally justified because it weeded out frivolous claims. In 2017, the Court abrogated the presumption as it pertained to pro se petitioners (which is to say most petitioners), and, in Small, it abrogated it entirely. I suppose the notion that your average criminal defense attorney is combing through the Federal Register is a bit silly as well).

In Chmiel, the Court waded into the emerging upheaval in the forensic sciences, addressing a challenge to the admissibility of microscopic hair examination. Although it rejected a Frye challenge in dicta on the ground that the practice is not novel, it cited several publications that have issued broadsides against existing forensic practices as, in essence, unscientific and unreliable, emphatically admonished forensic scientists not to “overclaim” that, for example, trace evidence “matches” other trace evidence before disposing of the case on prejudice grounds. Although Chmiel concerned microscopic hair analysis, it provides a pathway for criminal practitioners to challenge myriad forensic disciplines: fiber analysis, firearms and toolmark examination, and fingerprint evidence just to name a few.

Finally, for an interesting step into semantics, in Chester-Upland Sch. Dist., Chief Justice Saylor does his best to explain that even though the General Assembly intended that localities not tax billboards, it nevertheless intended that localities tax billboard-caused property value. If anyone can thread that needle, it's the Chief Justice, but reasonable minds may disagree as to whether he got there.

Precedential Opinions

  • Commonwealth v. Jones, 24 WAP 2019 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (providing guidance on when officer testimony concerning child responses to sexual abuse is lay and opinion testimony and addressing related legisprudential issues)

  • In re: November 3, 2020 General Election, 149 MM 2020 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that the Election Code neither authorizes nor requires county election boards to reject voted absentee or mail-in ballots during pre-canvassing or canvassing based on alleged or percieved signature variances)

  • Commonwealth v. Katona, 1 WAP 2019 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding evidence obtained from potential Wiretap Act violation was admissible under Pennsylvania's independent source doctrine)

  • Commonwealth v. Cox, 783 CAP (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (vacating intellectually disabled defendant's death sentence as unsupported by appropriate analysis of whether his intellectual disability precluded his execution and remanding for further proceedings)

  • Hammons v. Ethicon, Inc., 7 EAP 2019 (Opinion by Baer, J.) (applying new federal constitutional rules to find personal jurisdiction where foreign plaintiffs brought a products liability action concerning products partially manufactured in Pennsylvania against foreign defendants)

  • Commonwealth v. Chmiel, 780 CAP (Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (affirming post-conviction court's rejection of certain challenges to microscopic hair analysis)

  • Commonwealth v. Weir, 28 WAP 2019 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding a challenge to the amount of restitution implicates the discretionary aspects, rather than legality, of a sentence and is thus subject to issue-preservation requirements)

  • Commonwealth v. Small, 8 EAP 2019 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (abrogating the presumption that petitioners pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act know matters contained in public records)

  • Commonwealth v. Johnson, 18 EAP 2019 (Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (explaining intersection of deductions from inmate accounts and procedural due process)

  • Sivick v. State Ethics Commn., 62 MAP 2019 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a township supervisor's ministerial approval of Township-paid wages to his son did not violate the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act)

  • Seda-Cog Joint Rail Auth. v. Carload Express, Inc., 12 MAP 2019 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the Pennsylvania Municipality Authorities Act embraces common law quorum and majority vote requirements)

  • In re: Consolidated Appeals of Chester-Upland Sch. Dist., 55 MAP 2019 et. al (Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (holding that a property's additional value due to the presence of a billboard may be included in a property tax assessment notwithstanding the billboard exclusion to the Consolidated County Assessment Law because the inclusion of that additional value does not assess the billboard itself as real property)

  • Fouse, et al. v. Saratoga Partners, L.P., 67 MAP 2019 (Opinion by Baer, J.) (holding that statutes permitting tax-delinquent landowners in Philadelphia and Allegheny County to redeem tax-sold property within nine months of sale but not permitting such landowners in other counties does not violate the constitutional right to equal protection of the laws because the statutes were rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose of expediting the collection of delinquent taxes, in part because the distinction was myopic, given that the law governing the former counties gave greater post-tax-sale protections and the law governing the latter gave greater pre-tax-sale protections, and there were appropriate distinctions in tax collection in urban versus rural counties)

Allocatur Grants

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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