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Commonwealth v. Willis

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 12, 2013


Appeal from the PCRA Order August 9, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-09-CR-0000789-2009




This is an appeal from the August 9, 2012 order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County denying Appellant's first petition filed under the PCRA[1] after a panel of this Court vacated the PCRA court's original denial of collateral relief on the basis Appellant was denied the effective assistance of PCRA counsel. Upon remand, the PCRA court appointed new PCRA counsel, held a new PCRA evidentiary hearing, and, ultimately, denied Appellant's PCRA petition by order entered on August 9, 2012. Appellant now contends (1) his guilty plea was involuntarily and unlawfully induced by the ineffective assistance of guilty plea counsel and (2) his sentence is illegal. We affirm.

The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows: On May 27, 2009, Appellant entered a guilty plea to the offenses of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence (DUI), homicide by vehicle, accident involving death or injury while not properly licensed, and DUI.[2] That same day, he was sentenced to 6½ to 13 years in prison, to be followed by a term of 7 years' probation. Appellant did not file a direct appeal; however, on February 16, 2010, he filed a timely pro se PCRA petition in which he presented claims of ineffective assistance of guilty plea counsel. The PCRA court appointed counsel, Ronald H. Elgart, Esquire, who filed a petition to withdraw and Turner/Finley[3] "no-merit" letter. Prior to ruling on Attorney Elgart's petition to withdraw, the PCRA court conducted a PCRA hearing, at which Attorney Elgart represented Appellant.

Subsequently, the PCRA court held a second PCRA hearing to address issues, which were raised by Appellant in a pro se amended PCRA petition and, once again, prior to the hearing, Attorney Elgart submitted a petition to withdraw and Turner/Finley "no-merit" letter. The PCRA court did not rule on Attorney Elgart's petition to withdraw prior to conducting the second hearing, and at the hearing, Attorney Elgart represented Appellant.

On November 23, 2010, the PCRA court denied Appellant's PCRA petition and granted Attorney Elgart permission to withdraw from representing Appellant. Appellant filed a direct appeal, and without reaching the merits of any issues presented on appeal, a panel of this Court concluded that Appellant was "effectively denied his right to counsel in his first petition for post-conviction relief." Commonwealth v. Willis, 29 A.3d 393, 396 (Pa.Super. 2011) (citations and footnote omitted). Specifically, the panel concluded that, by advocating against Appellant at the PCRA hearings, Attorney Elgart violated his duty to continue to represent Appellant until the PCRA court ruled on his petitions to withdraw. See id. Additionally, the panel noted the PCRA court compounded this error by failing to rule on Attorney Elgart's petitions to withdraw prior to the PCRA hearings, as well as permitting Attorney Elgart to advocate against Appellant at the hearings. See id. Thus, relinquishing jurisdiction, the panel vacated the PCRA court's November 23, 2010 order and remanded the matter for the appointment of new PCRA counsel and a new PCRA hearing. See id.

Upon remand, the PCRA court appointed Keith J. Williams, Esquire, to represent Appellant, Attorney Williams procured Appellant's medical records, and, on July 26, 2012, Attorney Williams represented Appellant at a PCRA hearing. Following the hearing, by order entered on August 9, 2012, the PCRA court denied Appellant's PCRA petition, and this timely, counseled appeal followed. The PCRA court directed Appellant to file a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement, counsel timely complied on behalf of Appellant, and the PCRA court filed a responsive Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion.

Appellant's first contention is his guilty plea was involuntarily and unlawfully induced by the ineffective assistance of guilty plea counsel. Specifically, he alleges guilty plea counsel was ineffective in failing to obtain Appellant's Correctional Mental Health Records, thus leading to guilty plea counsel being unaware of Appellant's mental health issues (which included depression and alcohol abuse disorder) and the fact Appellant was under the influence of prescribed psychotropic medication (including Sinequan and Celexa) when he pled guilty. Appellant suggests that guilty plea counsel should have investigated whether Appellant had any mental health issues, including procuring his Correctional Mental Health Records, and notified the trial court of any information contained therein, including Appellant's mental health diagnosis and use of prescribed medication. Such information, Appellant suggests, would have led to a further inquiry as to whether Appellant was impaired or otherwise incompetent to plead guilty.

Our standard of review of the denial of a PCRA petition is limited to examining whether the court's determination is supported by the evidence of record and free of legal error. This Court grants great deference to the findings of the PCRA court if the record contains any support for those findings. Further, the PCRA court's credibility determinations are binding on this Court, where there is record support for those determinations.

Commonwealth v. Anderson, 995 A.2d 1184, 1189 (Pa.Super. 2010) (citations omitted).

To prevail on a claim alleging counsel's ineffectiveness under the PCRA, Appellant must demonstrate (1) that the underlying claim is of arguable merit; (2) that counsel's course of conduct was without a reasonable basis designed to effectuate his client's interest; and (3) that he was prejudiced by counsel's ineffectiveness, i.e. there is a reasonable probability that but for the act or omission in question the outcome of the proceedings would have been different.
It is clear that a criminal defendant's right to effective counsel extends to the plea process, as well as during trial. However, [a]llegations of ineffectiveness in connection with the entry of a guilty plea will serve as a basis for relief only if the ineffectiveness caused the defendant to enter an involuntary or unknowing plea. Where the defendant enters his plea on the advice of counsel, the voluntariness of the plea depends on whether counsel's advice was within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases.

Commonwealth v. Wah, 42 A.3d 335, 338 (Pa.Super. 2012) (citations, quotation, and quotation marks omitted). "[T]he law does not require that [the defendant] be pleased with the outcome of his decision to enter a plea of guilty: All that is required is that [his] decision to plead guilty be knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently made." Anderson, 995 A.2d at 1192 (citations, quotation, and quotation marks omitted).

With regard to an attorney's duty to investigate, the Supreme Court has noted that the reasonableness of a particular investigation depends upon evidence known to counsel, as well as evidence that would cause a reasonable attorney to conduct a further investigation. Commonwealth v. Hughes, 581 Pa. 274, 865 A.2d 761 (2004). With regard to the voluntariness of a plea, a guilty plea colloquy must "affirmatively demonstrate the defendant understood what the plea connoted and its consequences." Commonwealth v. Lewis, 708 A.2d 497, 501 (Pa.Super. 1998). Once the defendant has entered a guilty plea, "it is presumed that he was aware of what he was doing, and the burden of proving involuntariness is upon him." Commonwealth v. Bedell, 954 A.2d 1209, 1212 (Pa.Super. 2008). Competence to plead guilty requires a finding that the defendant comprehends the crime for which he stands accused, is able to cooperate with his counsel in forming a rational defense, and has a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him. Commonwealth v. Turetsky, 925 A.2d 876 (Pa.Super. 2007).

Here, during the lengthy guilty plea colloquy, the following relevant exchange occurred between the trial court and Appellant:

THE COURT: Now, how far did you go in school, sir?
[APPELLANT]: Couple years of college.
THE COURT: All right. Do you read, write and speak the English language?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Are you under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication at this time?
THE COURT: Are you under the care of a psychologist, a psychiatrist or any mental health professional for any issue related to some form of mental illness?
THE COURT: What would that be, sir?
[APPELLANT]: Just sleeping disorders from what had happened.
THE COURT: Are you taking any medication at this time?
[APPELLANT]: Yeah. But it doesn't affect my ability to make judgment or---
THE COURT: So you're not aware of anything that would preclude you in any way from understanding the nature of your actions today, the consequences of your actions, and making an informed decision about how you wish to proceed; is that correct?
[APPELLANT]: I understand everything.
THE COURT: All right.
THE COURT: Now, obviously, today and throughout these proceedings, you have the right to be represented by counsel. If you cannot afford one, one can be appointed to assist you. In this case Miss Faust from the Public Defender's Office is assisting you; is that correct?
THE COURT: She has had the opportunity to represent you throughout these proceedings, that's my understanding; is that right?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Have you and she had the opportunity to discuss the evidence that has been gathered against you?
THE COURT: Have you and she had the opportunity to discuss any defenses you might have to the charges?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Has she discussed with you what the potential sentences could be?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Are you satisfied with her representation throughout these proceedings?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Has anybody threatened, forced or coerced you in any way into entering this plea of guilty?
[APPELLANT]: No, sir.
THE COURT: Are you entering this plea knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently, and of your own free will? Is that correct, sir?
[APPELLANT]: Yes, sir.

N.T. 5/27/09, guilty plea hearing, at 3-4, 11-12, 22-23.

Additionally, during the July 26, 2012 PCRA evidentiary hearing, the issue of Appellant's mental health records, diagnosis, and taking of prescribed medications was fully explored. For example, Appellant testified on direct examination by PCRA counsel in relevant part as follows:

Q: At some point in time, you were represented by Ann Faust from the public defender's office?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: As a result of that, did you eventually dispose of this case though a plea?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Prior to that plea, were you involved in any mental health treatment?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: After your arrest on these charges you were incarcerated at the Bucks County Correctional Facility, correct?
A: Yes.
Q: While there, did you receive any mental health treatment or were you prescribed any medications?
A: Yes, I was seeing a doctor the whole time I was there and taking medication the ...

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