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Hunt v. Pennsylvania State Police of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

August 17, 2009

ARTHUR W. HUNT, APPELLEE
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
ARTHUR W. HUNT, CROSS APPELLANT
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered on March 15, 2007 at No. 48 M.D. 2007.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Todd

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: December 3, 2008

OPINION

In this direct appeal, we consider, inter alia, whether Appellant/Cross-Appellee Pennsylvania State Police ("State Police") has standing to challenge, via preliminary objections raised in a mandamus action, the merits of a trial court's order requiring the expungement of a criminal record pursuant to the Criminal History Record Information Act ("CHRIA or "Act").*fn1 For the reasons that follow, we find the State Police lacks standing, and, thus, affirm in part the order of the Commonwealth Court. As described below, we also remand the matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The facts underlying this appeal are as follows. On May 22, 2006, Appellee/Cross-Appellant Arthur W. Hunt ("Hunt") petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County to expunge his criminal record.*fn2 Thirty years earlier, in 1976, Hunt successfully completed Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition ("ARD") for the underlying crimes of which he was convicted  indecent assault,*fn3 indecent exposure,*fn4 and corruption of minors.*fn5 Hunt had not been arrested or convicted of any offenses in the three decades following his convictions and his successful completion of ARD. The District Attorney of Bucks County did not oppose Hunt's petition for expungement. On July 6, 2006, the trial court ordered the State Police, and, inter alia, other local and federal law enforcement agencies, to expunge Hunt's criminal record due to his successful completion of the conditions imposed upon him in connection with the ARD program.*fn6 No appeal was taken by the District Attorney.

The State Police refused to comply with the trial court's order. Rather, it requested the Bucks County District Attorney to file a motion to vacate the trial court's order nunc pro tunc. According to the State Police, the trial court's order was illegal and in violation of Section 9122(b.1) of CHRIA. 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 9122(b.1). Section 9122(b.1), the effective date of which was April 22, 1997, provides that a trial court shall not have the authority to order expungement of a defendant's record where such defendant, like Hunt, was placed on ARD for, inter alia, indecent assault, where the victim was under 18 years of age. Id. The District Attorney agreed to file a motion to vacate nunc pro tunc. Thereafter, on September 19, 2006, the trial court rescinded Hunt's expungement order.

By order dated October 19, 2006, however, the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County rescinded its prior order and again entered an order directing expungement. The trial court noted Hunt's sentence was completed 20 years before the statute became effective and reasoned Section 9122(b.1) was not to be applied retroactively. The Bucks County District Attorney did not appeal this order. Again, the State Police refused to comply with the trial court's order.

On January 30, 2007, as a result of the State Police's second refusal to comply with the trial court's order to expunge his criminal record, Hunt filed a Petition for Review in the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court, both under CHRIA and in the nature of mandamus, to compel expungement. Specifically, Hunt requested: an order directing the State Police to comply with the trial court's expungement order; actual and real damages; reasonable costs of litigation; counsel fees; and exemplary and punitive damages. Petition for Review at 5. In the alternative, Hunt requested a writ in mandamus compelling expungement. Petition for Review at 6. The same day, Hunt filed an Application for Summary Judgment in which he asserted the State Police "has no standing to object to, let alone willfully and repeatedly disobey, an order of expungement of an arrest record." Application for Summary Relief at 2.

On March 1, 2007, the State Police filed preliminary objections, claiming Hunt's Petition for Review failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Specifically, the State Police contended it could not comply with the trial court's order, as Section 9122(b.1) precluded expungement and the trial court erroneously concluded this provision was not retroactive to prohibit expungement of offenses prior to its effective date. The State Police also alleged that, when Hunt completed ARD in 1976, there was no automatic entitlement to expungement of one's criminal record. According to the State Police, as there was no clear right to expungement, there was no corresponding duty for the State Police to expunge Hunt's criminal record.

The Commonwealth Court, by Judge Dan Pellegrini, filed an unpublished single judge order and opinion, concluding the State Police lacked standing to contest the expungement order. Thus, the court overruled the State Police's preliminary objections and granted Hunt's motion for summary judgment.

Specifically, Judge Pellegrini reasoned our recent decision in J.H. v. Commonwealth, 563 Pa. 248, 759 A.2d 1269 (2000), was dispositive. Noting J.H. involved a virtually identical factual scenario concerning the State Police's refusal to expunge a criminal record, Judge Pellegrini found the law clear that, because the General Assembly did not confer standing on the State Police, and because the State Police was a mere depository of criminal records that it received from reporting agencies, the State Police did not have standing to contest the trial court's expungement order. Based upon this binding precedent, Judge Pellegrini ordered the State Police to comply with the trial court's October 19, 2006 order.

As Judge Pellegrini found the law to be plain, and the State Police "obdurately refused to comply with the trial court's order," Commonwealth Court Op. at 5, he awarded Hunt $6,069 in counsel fees, noting the State Police did not actively oppose the award to such fees as it was apparently "interested in having a vehicle for the Supreme Court to reconsider J.H." Id. at 5 n.4. The court, however, denied Hunt's request for an award of punitive damages, concluding the Commonwealth was not subject to such damages.

The State Police appealed the Commonwealth Court's decision, raising the issue of whether the Commonwealth Court erred when it concluded the State Police lacked standing to contest the expungement of a criminal record in the context of a mandamus action.*fn7 State Police Brief at 4. The State Police also asks the related question of whether the Commonwealth Court erred when it implicitly held the State Police violated CHRIA when it refused to comply with the order directing the expungement of a criminal record. Id. Hunt filed a cross-appeal challenging the denial of his claim for actual and punitive damages. Hunt Brief at 1.*fn8

Initially, we note our Court is reviewing the Commonwealth Court's denial of the State Police's preliminary objections and the granting of Hunt's motion for summary relief in the context of a mandamus action. Appellate review of the denial of preliminary objections is limited to a determination of whether there was an error of law. Mazur v. Trinity Area Sch. Dist., __ Pa. __, __, 961 A.2d 96, 101 (2008). Similarly, the granting of summary judgment is reviewed by an appellate court for errors of law or an abuse of discretion. Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc., 571 Pa. 580, 585, 812 A.2d 1218, 1221 (2002). As the issues of standing and the award of damages against the Commonwealth are all questions of law, for each issue, our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary. In re Hickson, 573 Pa. 127, 134, 821 A.2d 1238, 1242 (2003); accord Feingold v. SEPTA, 512 Pa. 567, 517 A.2d 1270 (1986).

We begin with the threshold issue of whether the State Police has standing to challenge, via preliminary objections in a mandamus action, the merits of an order expunging a criminal record.*fn9 As our analysis involves interpreting CHRIA, we initially consider the dictates of the Statutory Construction Act. 1 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1501 et seq.

The objective of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(a). Our Court has found that the best indication of the General Assembly's intent is the plain language of the statute. Martin v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 588 Pa. 429, 438, 905 A.2d 438, 443 (2006). When the words of a statute are clear and unambiguous, there is no need to look beyond the plain meaning of the statute "under the pretext of pursuing its spirit." 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(b); see Commonwealth v. Conklin, 587 Pa. 140, 152, 897 A.2d 1168, 1175 (2006). Consequently, only when the words of a statute are ambiguous should a court seek to ascertain the intent of the General Assembly through consideration of the various factors found in Section 1921(c). 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(c); Koken v. Reliance Ins. Co., 586 Pa. 269, 288, 893 A.2d 70, 81 (2006).

With these principles in mind, we turn to the arguments of the parties. The State Police contends it has standing to contest the trial court's expungement order because this matter arises from a petition in mandamus filed by one seeking enforcement of an expungement order, whereas J.H., relied on by the Commonwealth Court, arose in the context of a motion to compel. Specifically, the State Police offers that, in J.H., the appeal arose from a motion to compel filed before the trial court. Here, the matter arose as a result of a petition for review in mandamus, filed in the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court. Citing Fajohn v. Commonwealth, 547 Pa. 649, 692 A.2d 1067 (1997), the State Police contends mandamus is not available to compel an agency to engage in an illegal act. According to the State Police, the order directing expungement is without legal authority, and, thus, the State Police should have standing to contest "this patently illegal order." State Police Brief at 15. Furthermore, the State Police claims this case involves an order of expungement of an arrest that resulted in placement in a pre-trial diversionary program. Pursuant to Section 9122(c) of CHRIA, the State Police, acting as a central repository, is charged with maintaining a list of the names and other criminal history record information of persons whose records are required by law or court rule to be expunged where the individual successfully completed the conditions of any pretrial or post-trial diversion or probation program. As this information is to be used to determine subsequent eligibility for such programs and for identifying persons in criminal investigations, the State Police asserts it has standing.

Additionally, the State Police maintains it has standing because it has been aggrieved by an action or order. According to the State Police, in its role as the keeper of records, it would be prevented from retaining the record of a sexual offender whose victims were minors. The State Police further explains Hunt could commit other offenses against minors, and seek ARD to which, according to the State Police, he would not be entitled. Also, since there would be no record of his previous crimes, the State Police would be harmed by not being able to investigate future crimes committed by Hunt. Furthermore, the State Police contends, because Hunt's expungement involves "more serious sexual offenses within the context of duties placed on the state police in its recordkeeping and investigative capacity," that it is distinguishable from the situation in J.H. in which expungement concerned a summary conviction. State Police Brief at 16. Finally, the State Police asserts standing should be granted because it is aggrieved by the Commonwealth Court's order imposing attorney's fees.

Hunt retorts the State Police does not have standing to contest the validity of the trial court's expungement order. Specifically, Hunt offers our decision in J.H., which stands for the proposition that the State Police does not have standing to contest the validity of an underlying expungement order, is controlling. Hunt emphasizes the arguments advanced by the State Police in J.H., and rejected therein, are the same arguments it makes in the appeal sub judice. As no compelling reasons are present to overrule J.H., and circumstances have not changed, Hunt asserts our decision in J.H. requires affirmance of the Commonwealth Court's order. Furthermore, Hunt counters the State Police's argument that this matter arises in a procedurally distinguishable fashion that grants it standing, by pointing to our Court's conclusion in J.H. that "standing is not conferred via a party's relationship to the ...


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