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[U] Commonwealth v. Heller

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 9, 2013

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
JAMES EDWARD HELLER, Appellant

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered February 6, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Pike County, Criminal Division, at Nos: CP-52-CR-0000062-2011 and CP-52-CR-000516-2011

BEFORE: SHOGAN, ALLEN, and FITZGERALD, [*] JJ.

MEMORANDUM

ALLEN, J.

James Edward Heller ("Appellant") appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed after he pled guilty to one count of robbery at Docket No. 62 of 2011, and two counts of aggravated assault at Docket No. 516 of 2011.[1] We affirm.

The trial court summarized the pertinent facts and procedural history as follows:

This appeal stems from two separate criminal cases involving [Appellant]. On April 18, 2011, the District Attorney filed a Criminal Information docketed to 62-2011 CR charging [Appellant] with Counts 1 and 2 of Robbery and Count 3 of Theft by Unlawful Taking or Disposition – Moveable Property. The charges stemmed from a robbery at a Wachovia Bank. On January 13, 2012, the District Attorney filed a Criminal Information docketed to 516-2011 CR charging [Appellant] with Count 1 and 2 of Aggravated Assault and Count 3 Terroristic Threats. These charges stemmed from an incident at the Pike County Correctional Facility in which two Correctional Officers were assaulted and injured while on duty. [Appellant] chose to represent himself with respect to 62-2011 CR and executed a Waiver of Counsel on April 21, 2011. Standby Counsel was appointed to assist [Appellant]. He was represented by Counsel from the Office of the Public Defender on 516-2011 CR.
[Appellant] filed more than fifty (50) pro se Motions, including a thirteen (13) count Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion and a six (6) count Supplemental Omnibus Motion. The [trial court] ruled on each motion, many of which required hearings. On February 6, 2012, [Appellant] was transported for a hearing on [his] Motion for Allocation of Defense Funds to Employ Audio Video Forensics, Motion to Dismiss, and Amended Motion to Suppress Statements. At the hearing, [Appellant] chose to plead guilty to charges from both cases on the condition that he would be sentenced the same day. [Appellant] met with and was advised by his counsel on 516-2011 CR as well as Standby Counsel. Ultimately, [Appellant] plead guilty to the following charges: Count 2 of Criminal Information 62-2011 a charge of Robbery and from Criminal Information 516-2011 Counts 1 and 2 charges of Aggravated Assault. The plea agreement provided for a sentence within the standard range of the guidelines, with whether the sentence on the [r]obbery charge would run concurrent or consecutive left to the [trial court] and sentences on the aggravated assault charges to run concurrent. The Probation Department compiled a Pre-Sentence Investigation and [Appellant's] motion for immediate sentencing was granted.
On Count 2 of 62-2011 [robbery], [Appellant] was sentenced to a term of incarceration of not less than forty (40) months nor more than eight years. On Count 1 in Criminal Information 516-2011 [aggravated assault], [Appellant] was sentenced to thirty-six (36) months to seven (7) years in a state correctional facility to run consecutive to the sentence imposed in 62-2011. On Count 2 of Criminal Information 516-2011 [aggravated assault], [Appellant] was also sentenced to thirty- six (36) months to seven (7) years in a state correctional facility to run consecutive to the sentence imposed above for a total aggregate sentence of seventy-six (76) months to fifteen (15) years.

Trial Court Opinion, 9/24/12, at 1-3 (footnotes omitted).

Appellant filed a pro se post-sentence motion, which was time-stamped by the Clerk of Courts on February 16, 2012. The essence of Appellant's post-sentence motion was that his "guilty plea … was not a knowing, intelligent and/or voluntary act." Post-sentence Motion, 2/16/12, at 3 (unnumbered). However, the post-sentence motion was not entered on the docket. On June 18, 2012, Appellant filed a motion seeking a 30-day extension for the trial court to issue a decision on his post-sentence motion. On July 11, 2012, the trial court denied Appellant's motion for a 30-day extension and ruled that Appellant's post-sentence motion had been denied by operation of law upon the expiration of 120 days. Appellant filed a notice of appeal on July 26, 2012. Both Appellant and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

Appellant raises the following issues for our review:

I. Whether the Appellant's Guilty Plea docketed to No. CR-62-2011 was unlawfully induced by the cumulative nature of factors resulting in unlawful intrusions and obstruction of the defense?
II. Whether the Trial Court erred in denying Appellant's Post Sentence Motion by "operation of law"?
III. Whether the Trial Court erred in determining that the Appellant knowingly, intelligently, and willingly entered into a guilty plea on No. 516-2011-CR?
IV. Whether the Trial Court erred in the use of handcuffs, shackles and/or waist chain and wrist mobility restrictors at all court proceedings, thus effecting the Appellant's mental and physical faculties.

Appellant's Brief at 7.

For purposes of clarity and ease of analysis, we note that Appellant's first, third and fourth issues all pertain to Appellant's overarching claim that he should have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea because it was not entered knowingly, intelligently or voluntarily. We will address that claim collectively. First, however, we address Appellant's claim that his post-sentence motion should not have been denied by operation of law.

Pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. Rule 720, post-sentence motions shall be filed within 10 days after the imposition of sentence. The trial court shall decide the post-sentence motion within 120 days of the filing of the motion. Within the 120-day disposition period, for good cause shown, the judge may grant one 30-day extension for decision on the motion. If the judge fails to decide the post-sentence motion within 120 days, or to grant a 30-day extension, the post-sentence motion shall be deemed denied by operation of law.

Here, Appellant's judgment of sentence was imposed on February 6, 2012. Appellant had 10 days to file his post-sentence motion pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 702(A)(1). The certified record contains a post-sentence motion bearing a February 16, 2012 time stamp from the Clerk of Courts of Pike County, indicating that the motion was filed within the 10-day period. However, for reasons that are not explained in the record, the post-sentence motion was not entered on the docket. Nor did the trial court receive a copy of the post-sentence motion. See Appellant's Brief at 19; Trial Court Order, 7/11/12, at 1-2; Trial Court Opinion, 9/24/12, at 8-9.

Having discovered that the post-sentence motion had not been entered on the docket, and fearing that the 120-days would expire, Appellant, on June 18, 2012, filed a motion requesting a 30-day extension for the trial court to issue a decision on his post-sentence motion.[2] On July 11, 2012, the trial court entered an order denying Appellant's motion for a 30-day extension. The trial court explained:

The [trial court] was not apprised of the filing of the [post-sentence motion]. By the time the [trial court] was notified, [the post-sentence motion] had already been denied by operation of law with the passage of 120 days.
Even though the [post-sentence motion] appears to be filed on February 16, 2012, the [m]otion was not docketed at that time, the [trial court] was not provided with a copy and it appears the District Attorney's office was not served with a copy. As a result of those matters, the period of time for action by the [trial court] has already expired by operation of law.
Even though [Appellant's post-sentence motion] now appears to be filed on February 16, 2012, said docketing is a retroactive docketing which was not entered until after June 20, 2012 when [the trial court, ] having received [Appellant's] Motion for Extension of Time, inquired of the Clerk of Courts office seeking information on their receipt and filing of the original [post-sentence motion]. As of June 20, 2012, the [post-sentence-motion] was not docketed and the original could not be located.

Trial Court Order, 7/11/12, at 1-2.

Appellant asserts that because of a 'breakdown in the process', the trial court did not receive a copy of his post-sentence motion when it was filed on February 16, 2012.[3] Appellant's Brief at 20-21. Therefore, Appellant contends that the trial court should not have deemed his motion denied as a matter of law after the expiration of 120 days, and should have granted Appellant's request for a 30-day extension to consider the post-sentence motion. Id.

Our courts have held that "a document is filed when the Prothonotary receives it." Commonwealth v. Alaouie, 837 A.2d 1190, 1192 (Pa. Super. 2003); Pa.R.Crim.P. Rule 576 (A)(2)(b) ("Except as provided by law, filing by mail shall be timely only when actually received by the clerk of courts within the time fixed for filing."); Commonwealth v. Austin, --- A.3d ----, 2013 WL 1943994 (Pa. Super. 2013) (post-sentence motion deemed timely filed when received by the Clerk of Court's filing office). Thus, regardless of when Appellant's post-sentence motion was provided to the trial court, the record reflects that the post-sentence motion was filed with the Clerk of Courts on February 16, 2012, within 10 days after entry of the judgment of sentence. Pa.R.Crim.P. 720(B)(3)(a) provides that "the judge shall decide the post-sentence motion within 120 days of the filing of the motion." (emphasis added). The trial court therefore had 120 days from February 16, 2012 to rule on Appellant's motion. After the 120 days, which expired on June 15, 2012, the post-sentence motion could be deemed denied by operation of law. Pa.R.Crim.P. (B)(3)(a).

In the present case, the trial court took no action on the post-sentence motion because it did not receive the motion in a timely manner. The trial court's failure to act on the post-sentence motion resulted in its denial by operation of law on June 15, 2012. On June 18, 2012, Appellant filed his motion seeking a 30-day extension for the trial court to rule on his post-sentence motion. At that juncture, having been apprised of Appellant's post-sentence motion, the trial court responded by refusing to grant a 30-day extension, in effect affirming the June 15, 2012 denial of the post-sentence motion by operation of law. However, contrary to Appellant's assertion, the denial has not "virtually precluded" him from raising his post-sentence claims. Appellant's Brief at 21. Notably, the trial court stated, "Had the Court been apprised of the Motion during the period in which the Court could have ruled on it, the Court would have denied the Motion." Trial Court Opinion, 9/24/12, at 9. As the Commonwealth observed, Appellant's claims "were duly preserved for appeal." Commonwealth Brief at 19. We have reviewed Appellant's motion and agree. We therefore proceed to address Appellant's three remaining issues, which together form the basis for his claim regarding the validity of his guilty plea.

Appellant argues that he should have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea because the plea was not entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. Again, we find that this claim has been preserved for appellate review by virtue of Appellant raising it in his post-sentence motion. See Commonwealth v. Rush, 959 A.2d 945, 949 (Pa. Super. 2008) ("a request to withdraw a guilty plea on the grounds that it was involuntary is one of the claims that must be raised by motion in the trial court in order to be reviewed on direct appeal").

Appellant asserts that his plea was invalid for the following reasons: while imprisoned at the Pike County Correctional Facility during the pendency of his case, he was denied access to legal resources necessary to research his defense; the Pike County Correctional Facility did not mail court orders, legal notices, and Appellant's pleadings in a timely manner; confidential defense strategies were disclosed to the Commonwealth; Appellant experienced discomfort from wearing handcuffs, shackles, a waist chain, and wrist mobility restrictors during court proceedings, which precluded him from taking notes, sorting through exhibits and discovery materials, or approaching witnesses; the Commonwealth made Appellant's stay at the Pike County Correctional Facility "burdensome and intolerable"; and this cumulative "governmental interference" induced him to plead guilty. Appellant's Brief at 14-18, 22-26.

With regard to the validity of guilty pleas, we have explained:

Pennsylvania has constructed its guilty plea procedures in a way designed to guarantee assurance that guilty pleas are voluntarily and understandingly tendered. The entry of a guilty plea is a protracted and comprehensive proceeding wherein the court is obliged to make a specific determination after extensive colloquy on the record that a plea is voluntarily and understandingly tendered.

Commonwealth v. Yeomans, 24 A.3d 1044 (Pa. Super. 2011) (citing Commonwealth v. Fluharty, 632 A.2d 312, 314 (Pa. Super. 1993)). Rule 590 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure delineates the procedure surrounding the trial court's acceptance of a guilty plea. It first requires that a guilty plea be offered in open court. The rule then provides a procedure to determine whether the plea is voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entered. The Comment to Rule 590 requires, at a minimum, that the trial court ask questions to elicit the following information: (1) Does the defendant understand the nature of the charges to which he or she is pleading guilty or nolo contendere?; (2) Is there a factual basis for the plea?; (3) Does the defendant understand that he or she has the right to trial by jury?; (4) Does the defendant understand that he or she is presumed innocent until found guilty?; (5) Is the defendant aware of the permissible range of sentences and/or fines for the offenses charged?; and (6) Is the defendant aware that the judge is not bound by the terms of any plea agreement tendered unless the judge accepts such agreement?[4] Our review of the record in this case indicates that the trial court complied with the foregoing requirements. See N.T., 2/6/12, 2-6; Written Guilty Plea, 2/6/12 at 1-5.

"[P]ost-sentence motions for withdrawal are subject to higher scrutiny since courts strive to discourage entry of guilty pleas as sentence-testing devices." Commonwealth v. Kelly, 5 A.3d 370 (Pa. Super. 2010) (citations omitted). "A defendant must demonstrate that manifest injustice would result if the court were to deny his post-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea. Manifest injustice may be established if the plea was not tendered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. In determining whether a plea is valid, the court must examine the totality of circumstances surrounding the plea." Id.

Here, during a lengthy guilty plea colloquy, Appellant indicated that he was not forced or threatened in any manner to enter his pleas, that he was guilty of the offenses to which he entered his pleas, and that it was his decision to plead guilty. N.T., 2/6/12, at 1-28. In addition, Appellant completed and signed a written plea colloquy in which he indicated that his plea was not the product of force or threats, and that his plea was voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entered. Written Guilty Plea Colloquy, 2/6/12. Moreover, the trial court explained in its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion:

[The trial court] was very familiar with these cases when it considered all of the circumstances surrounding [Appellant's] decision to plead guilty and the entry of the guilty plea itself. [Appellant] filed dozens of pro se motions and represented himself at numerous hearings before [the trial court]. Accordingly, the [trial court] was familiar with both the facts of each case and [Appellant's] usual demeanor. Before [the trial court] accepted the entry of the plea, Defense Counsel on [Docket No.] 516-2011 went through the plea offer and colloquy with [Appellant]. The written colloquy was then reviewed on the record before the [trial court]. The [trial court] also executed a verbal colloquy to be sure that [Appellant] understood the terms and ramifications of the plea. [Appellant] admitted to the underlying facts to each charge in the plea and acknowledged that he was in fact guilty of these crimes.
At the entry of his plea, [Appellant] appeared poised, collected and calm, as he had at his previous proceedings. His appearance and demeanor gave every indication that he was accepting responsibility for his actions and no longer challenging the allegations. As the February 6, 2012 transcript reveals, [the trial court] questioned him extensively about whether he understood the consequences of his plea. [The trial court] concluded that he did and that [Appellant] knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered his plea.

Trial Court Opinion, 9/24/12, at 4-5.

We are mindful that:

Our law presumes that a defendant who enters a guilty plea was aware of what he was doing. He bears the burden of proving otherwise.
The long standing rule of Pennsylvania law is that a defendant may not challenge his guilty plea by asserting that he lied while under oath, even if he avers that counsel induced the lies. A person who elects to plead guilty is bound by the statements he makes in open court while under oath and may not later assert grounds for withdrawing the plea which contradict the statements he made at his plea colloquy.
[A] defendant who elects to plead guilty has a duty to answer questions truthfully. We [cannot] permit a defendant to postpone the final disposition of his case by lying to the court and later alleging that his lies were induced by the prompting of counsel.

Commonwealth v. Pollard, 832 A.2d 517, 523-24 (Pa. Super. 2003) (citations omitted).

Given the foregoing, and upon review of the record, we find no error in the trial court's determination that Appellant's guilty plea was valid under the totality of circumstances surrounding Appellant's plea. "A person who elects to plead guilty is bound by the statements he makes in open court while under oath and may not later assert grounds for withdrawing the plea which contradict the statements he made at his plea colloquy." Pollard, 832 A.2d at 523-24 (citations omitted). Here, Appellant's claim of being induced into pleading guilty directly contradicts his own assertions contained in the plea colloquy. Moreover, the trial court in this case was particularly familiar with Appellant, conducted a thorough guilty plea colloquy during which it had the opportunity to observe Appellant, and was assured that the plea was voluntary. Accordingly, Appellant's claim regarding the invalidity of his plea lacks merit. We therefore affirm the judgment of sentence.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.


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