February 4, 2014
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellee
WILLIAM SCOTT BEATTY Appellant
Appeal from the PCRA Order April 8, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-38-CR-0000842-2010 CP-38-CR-0001745-2009
BEFORE: ALLEN, J., LAZARUS, J., and FITZGERALD, J. [*]
William Scott Beatty appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County, dismissing his petition filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 9541-9546. Upon careful review, we affirm in part and vacate in part.
This case largely turns on matters of procedure. The procedural history has been ably set forth by the PCRA court as follows:
On September 6, 2009, a Criminal Complaint was filed which charged [Beatty] with Burglary, Criminal Conspiracy to Commit Burglary, Possession of Instrument of Crime and Criminal Conspiracy to [commit] Possession of Instrument of Crime. Upon [Beatty's] application, Chief Public Defender Brian Deiderick was appointed to represent him in this action.
[Beatty] waived his preliminary hearing on October 15, 2009, and also signed a form waiving his Arraignment on that date. Thereafter, he received his Three Date Letter notifying him of his Arraignment scheduled for November 18, 2009, the Call of the List scheduled for December 22, 2009 and a Trial date of January 4, 2010. [Beatty's] executed Waiver of Arraignment form was filed with the Court by Deiderick on November 18, 2009. On that date, the Commonwealth also provided [Beatty] with a Notice that this action was being consolidated with an action pending against another individual, Justin C. Gulliver, who was also facing charges related to this burglary.
At the Call of the List on December 22, 2009, Deiderick filed a written request of continuance asserting the following:
"4. Counsel for [Beatty] received the discovery materials on or about December 16, 2009. Said discovery consisted of seven (7) packets containing a large volume of detailed information.
5. Counsel for [Beatty] needs to have adequate opportunity to review said discovery, advise [Beatty] of all relevant options, and adequately prepare this matter for disposition.
6. The undersigned has discussed the instant continuance with [Beatty] and [Beatty] has expressed no opposition to the request."
The case was then scheduled for the Call of the List to be held on March 25, 2010. On that date, Deiderick submitted a second request for continuance. In that request, Deiderick submitted the following to the Court:
"4. Counsel for [Beatty] has been informed that additional and extensive charges are forthcoming against [Beatty] and that the Commonwealth intends to consolidate the charges filed to the above captioned action number with the new charges.
5. The new charges were delayed due to the volume of information and investigation and the Commonwealth has represented to the undersigned that a global resolution might be possible.
6. Counsel is under an ethical obligation to work in what is perceived to be our client's best interests and the opportunity to resolve a case to the best possible outcome is one of those duties and is a portion of the basis for the instant request."
This request was also granted by the Court and the case was rescheduled for the Call of the List to be held on June 24, 2010.
On June 23, 2010, the Commonwealth filed a Motion for Rule to Show Cause and a Motion for Permissive Consolidation/Joinder to consolidate this case with the action involving the other burglary charges against [Beatty][.] The Court sua sponte continued the case to the August 26, 2010 Call of the List due to the filing of that Motion and specifically directed that the delay would be attributed to the Commonwealth for purposes of Pa.R.Crim.P. 600. [Beatty] did not respond to the Rule to Show Cause and raised no opposition to the Motion for Consolidation.
At the Call of the List on August 26, 2010, Deiderick filed another written request for continuance which provided, in part, that
"[t]he undersigned has discussed the above captioned matters with First Assistant District Attorney John Ditzler and the undersigned has agreed to file a motion requesting a scheduling conference to facilitate the assignment of a Judge as well as establish a date for certain for either or both action numbers."
The Court again granted this request and the case was continued to the Call of the List scheduled for October 21, 2010. After that Call of the List, the case was listed for trial during the November Term of Criminal Jury Trials beginning November 1, 2010. Despite the Consolidation with the charges pending at [the other action], [Beatty] appeared in Court on November 1, 2010 before the Honorable Bradford H. Charles and entered an open plea of guilty on the charges involved in this action. Judge Charles advised [Beatty] that prejudice to the Commonwealth would be assumed and that [Beatty] would not be permitted to withdraw his plea once it was entered. After he entered his plea, [Beatty] was informed of his Sentencing scheduled for December 1, 2010.
On December 1, 2010, [Beatty] appeared for Sentencing before the Honorable John C. Tylwalk, P.J. At that time, Deiderick informed the Sentencing Judge that [Beatty] wished to withdraw his guilty plea and submitted an oral Motion to that effect. After the Motion to withdraw the plea was denied, [Beatty] explained to the Court that he felt his right to a prompt trial pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 600 had been violated. The Court explained that no Rule 600 issues were before it at that time and that [Beatty] would have to pursue that matter through different proceedings. The Court then sentenced [Beatty] to a concurrent term of forty months to ten years in a state correctional institution. After [Beatty] was sentenced, he executed a written post-sentence rights colloquy, in which he indicated that he had no complaints regarding Deiderick's handling of his case, with the exception of the Rule 600 issue.
Trial Court Opinion, 4/8/13, at 1-5.
On May 24, 2011, Beatty filed a PCRA petition alleging numerous instances of ineffective assistance of counsel. A hearing was held on January 31, 2012, at which Beatty was the sole witness. By opinion and order dated April 8, 2013, the PCRA court dismissed Beatty's petition. Beatty filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court on April 22, 2013, followed by a court-ordered statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b).
Beatty raises the following issues for our review:
1. Did the [PCRA court] err by not finding [plea] counsel ineffective for requesting or agreeing to trial continuances without [Beatty's] knowledge and consent, and for failing to move to dismiss the charges on [Rule 600] grounds?
2. Did the [PCRA court] err in finding that [plea] counsel was not ineffective for failing to appeal the denial of [Beatty's] motion to withdraw guilty plea?
Brief of Appellant, at 4.
On appeal from the denial of PCRA relief, our scope and standard of review are well-settled. We are limited to examining whether the PCRA court's findings of fact are supported by the record and whether its legal conclusions are free of error. Commonwealth v. Haskins, 60 A.3d 538, 546 (Pa.Super. 2012).
Beatty's issues both raise claims of ineffectiveness of counsel. Our standard of review when faced with such claims is well settled. First, we note that counsel is presumed to be effective and the burden of demonstrating ineffectiveness rests on appellant. Commonwealth v. Thomas, 783 A.2d 328, 332 (Pa.Super. 2001) (citation omitted). In order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place. Commonwealth v. Turetsky, 925 A.2d 876, 880 (Pa.Super. 2007) (citation omitted). A petitioner must show: (1) that the underlying claim has merit; (2) counsel had no reasonable strategic basis for his or her action or inaction; and (3) but for the errors or omissions of counsel, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. Id. (citation omitted). The failure to prove any one of the three prongs results in the failure of petitioner's claim. "The threshold inquiry in ineffectiveness claims is whether the issue/argument/tactic which counsel has foregone and which forms the basis for the assertion of ineffectiveness is of arguable merit." Commonwealth v. Taylor, 933 A.2d 1035, 1041-42 (Pa.Super. 2007), citing Commonwealth v. Pierce, 645 A.2d 189, 194 (Pa. 1994). "Counsel cannot be found ineffective for failing to pursue a baseless or meritless claim." Id., citing Commonwealth v. Poplawski, 852 A.2d 323, 327 (Pa.Super. 2004).
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. Timchak, 69 A.3d 765, 769 (Pa.Super. 2013), quoting Commonwealth v. Wah, 42 A.3d 335, 338 (Pa.Super. 2012).
Beatty first asserts that his counsel was ineffective for failing to seek dismissal of his charges pursuant to Rule 600. In a related issue, Beatty also asserts that his counsel was ineffective for requesting and receiving continuances without Beatty's knowledge and consent. These claims are meritless.
Rule 600 provides, in relevant part, that "[t]rial in a court case in which a written complaint is filed against the defendant shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the complaint is filed." Pa.R.Crim.P. 600. We begin any Rule 600 analysis by calculating the "mechanical run date." The mechanical run date is the date by which the trial must commence under Rule 600. Commonwealth v. Lynn, 815 A.2d 1053, 1056 (Pa.Super. 2003). It is calculated by adding 365 days to the date on which the criminal complaint is filed and can be modified or extended by adding to the date any periods of time in which delay is caused by the defendant. Id. Once the mechanical run date is modified accordingly, it then becomes an adjusted run date. Id.
Here, the complaint was filed on September 6, 2009 and Beatty entered his plea on November 1, 2010, a span of 422 days. However, as set forth above, Beatty's counsel requested and received three continuances totaling 254 days. Thus, pursuant to the tolling provisions of Rule 600 regarding delays caused by a defendant, Beatty's plea was entered after 168 days, well within the 365-day time period required under Rule 600. Under these circumstances, any Rule 600 motion would have been frivolous.
Nevertheless, Beatty asserts that the continuances sought by counsel were requested and obtained without his knowledge or consent. Beatty testified as such at the PCRA hearing and, on appeal, asserts that he is entitled to relief because the Commonwealth did not produce any evidence or call any witnesses to refute his testimony. This claim is meritless.
We begin by noting, as Beatty concedes in his brief, that "[t]he [PCRA] court has discretion to disbelieve testimony; thus, self-serving or uncorroborated statements on petitioner's behalf do not shift and do not necessarily sustain petitioner's burden of proof, even when the Commonwealth presents no rebuttal evidence." Commonwealth v. Baker, 507 A.2d 872, 874 (Pa.Super. 1985). As such, the fact that the PCRA court denied relief even though Beatty's claims were "uncontradicted" simply means that the court chose to discredit his self-serving testimony.
Moreover, it is of no moment that counsel may have decided to seek continuances without Beatty's on-the-record consent. "Continuances are a matter of sound trial strategy within the reasonable purview of counsel." Commonwealth v. Wells, 521 A.2d 1388, 1391-92 (Pa.Super. 1987). Where counsel's decision has a reasonable basis designed to effectuate his client's interests, counsel will not be found to be ineffective. See Turetsky, supra (no ineffectiveness where counsel has reasonable strategic basis for his action or inaction).
Here, counsel's first request for continuance was based upon the fact that he had only recently received extensive discovery from the Commonwealth and required time to review all relevant options and prepare his case. Counsel also averred that he had discussed the continuance with Beatty, who expressed no opposition. Counsel's second continuance request came after Beatty was informed that numerous additional charges were about to be lodged against him, which the Commonwealth intended to consolidate with the charges already filed. Counsel also represented to the court that the Commonwealth had indicated to him that a global resolution of all charges might be possible. The third and final request was filed in order to facilitate scheduling of a date certain for trial as well as the assignment of a trial judge.
The bases for counsel's continuance requests all evidence an effort to advance Beatty's interests. Clearly, it was reasonable for counsel to seek additional time to review newly-received discovery materials and to work with the Commonwealth to reach a global resolution of the numerous charges against Beatty. The purpose behind the third request is less clear; however, even assuming, arguendo, that the final 69-day continuance lacked a "reasonable basis designed to effectuate his client's interests, " it would not have caused a violation of Rule 600, as trial would have commenced on the 236th day. Accordingly, counsel was not ineffective either for seeking continuances or for failing to file a Rule 600 motion on Beatty's behalf.
Beatty's second and final claim may be disposed of summarily with reference to our disposition of his first claim. Beatty asserts that plea counsel was ineffective for failing to appeal the denial of his oral motion to withdraw his guilty plea. At his sentencing hearing on December 1, 2010, counsel advised the court that Beatty wished to withdraw his plea of guilty. Beatty stated at sentencing, and again at his PCRA hearing, that his sole reason for seeking to withdraw his plea was that he believed that he was entitled to a dismissal pursuant to Rule 600, for the reasons discussed supra. Beatty did not assert that he was, in fact, innocent of the charges to which he had pled guilty. As we have determined that Beatty's Rule 600 claim is entirely meritless, his assertion that counsel was ineffective for failing to pursue the issue on appeal is likewise without merit. See Pierce, 645 A.2d at 194 ("Counsel cannot be found ineffective for failing to pursue a baseless or meritless claim.").
Finally, Beatty has filed a motion for partial withdrawal and remand. Charges were filed against Beatty at two separate docket numbers, CP-38-CR-0001745-2009 ("2009 docket") and CP-38-CR-0000842-2010 ("2010 docket"). On May 24, 2011, Beatty filed a pro se PCRA petition with respect to the 2009 docket. Counsel was appointed and, although he did not file an amended PCRA petition on Beatty's behalf, requested a hearing on the petition. On January 31, 2012, the PCRA court held a hearing with respect to the petition filed on the 2009 docket. Thereafter, on February 4, 2012, Beatty filed a pro se PCRA petition on the 2010 docket. By order dated April 8, 2013, the PCRA court dismissed the petitions filed at both docket numbers. However, the PCRA court's subsequent opinion addressed only the issues raised with respect to the 2009 docket. Apparently in an abundance of caution, counsel filed notices of appeal at both docket numbers; this Court's own docket reflects both lower court docket numbers.
In his motion, Beatty asserts that the PCRA court erroneously dismissed both petitions simultaneously without actually considering the merits of the PCRA petition filed with regard to the 2010 charges. The Commonwealth did not respond to this motion or address the matter in its brief. Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the PCRA court did, in fact, err in entering an order dismissing both PCRA petitions without having considered the substance of the petition filed under the 2010 docket number. Accordingly, we vacate the PCRA court's April 8, 2013 order insofar as it applies to the 2010 docket and remand the matter for disposition on the merits.
Order affirmed as to case no. CP-38-CR-0001745-2009 and vacated as to case no. CP-38-CR-0000842-2010. Motion for partial withdrawal granted; case no. CP-38-CR-0000842-2010 remanded for disposition on the merits.