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[U] Commonwealth v. Thompson

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 20, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered April 2, 2013, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, at No(s): MC-51-MD-0001128-2013 and MC-51-MD-0001129-2013




Robert Thompson ("Appellant") appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed after the trial court found him guilty of direct criminal contempt.[1] Appellant presents two issues for our review:

1. Was not the evidence insufficient to justify the trial court's finding that [Appellant] acted in contempt of court?
2. Did not the trial court, in adjudicating [A]ppellant guilty of contempt of court, violate his rights to due process and the assistance of counsel, insofar as the court failed to provide notice of charges and of the behavior constituting the alleged contempt, refused to allow [A]ppellant the meaningful opportunity to consult with counsel prior to or during contempt proceedings, denied [A]ppellant the right to present any defense, denied [A]ppellant the right to present evidence following a finding of guilt, failed to provide [A]ppellant with or inform him of his right to a jury trial where the aggregate sentence imposed exceeded six months, and behaved with clear personal bias and animus towards [A]ppellant?

Appellant's Brief at 3.

In his first issue, Appellant argues that there was insufficient evidence for the trial court to find him in contempt where "Appellant's behavior was entirely innocent and suggestive of no misbehavior and where his actions were not intended to obstruct and did not obstruct the administration of justice." Appellant's Brief at 15.

We initially note that our review of the evidence established at a summary contempt hearing requires this Court to review only the evidence dictated on the record by the trial court, as a summary hearing by definition entails only evidence observed first-hand from the bench. Commonwealth v. Moody, supra. To find direct criminal contempt, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of (1) misconduct; (2) in the presence of the court; (3) committed with the intent to obstruct justice; and (4) that obstructs the administration of justice. Stewart v. Foxworth, 65 A.3d 468, 472 (Pa. Super. 2013) (citation omitted). To obstruct justice, as required to sustain a conviction for direct criminal contempt, the conduct must "significantly disrupt" the judicial proceedings. Commonwealth v. Williams, 753 A.2d 856, 863 (Pa. Super. 2000).

Our review of the record, specifically all 28 pages of the notes of testimony from the voir dire/summary contempt hearing[2], supports Appellant's assertion that his actions did not "significantly obstruct the administration of justice." Id.

In addressing potential jurors during voir dire, the following exchange occurred:

THE COURT: All right. Thank you. I'm also going to present defense counsel. He will introduce himself to you. It's Mr. Corrigan. And then he will introduce his client to you.
MR. CORRIGAN: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Vincent Corrigan, and I represent [Appellant].
APPELLANT: Good afternoon. Good morning. My name is Robert Thompson, the defendant, myself, for a case in which I'm innocent.
THE COURT: Please sit down. Sir, please sit down. You're to introduce yourself and nothing further.

N.T., 4/2/13, at 13-14.

The trial court then continued to address the jurors, after which the following ensued:

THE COURT: Hold on one second. I got to talk to [Appellant]. How dare you make speeches when I presented you for introduction –
APPELLANT: I introduced myself.
THE COURT: -- and then you gave me some lip. Then you gave me some lip and you said that's what we were doing. You weren't-
APPELLANT: I didn't.
THE COURT: Oh, now you want to call me a liar? Well, guess what? Guess what?
APPELLANT: I didn't say you were a liar, sir.
THE COURT: You listen to me.
APPELLANT: I didn't say you were a liar. I've been as humble as I can. I had my hands in my pockets; you started yelling at me. I've been humble. I put my hands in my pockets.
THE COURT: Well, guess what? I'm holding you –
APPELLANT: I'm practicing humility.
THE COURT: Shut up or you're going to have two contempts. I'm [going to] hold you in contempt –
APPELLANT: I don't understand. I don't understand.
THE COURT: -- 3 to 6 months.
APPELLANT: What did I do? What did I do, Your Honor?
THE COURT: Shut up or I'm going to hold you in contempt again.
MR. CORRIGAN: Be quiet.
THE COURT: 3 to 6 months –
MR. CORRIGAN: Your Honor, I object. I object to this.
THE COURT: You can object all you want.
MR. CORRIGAN: He didn't do anything except introduce himself to the jury.
THE COURT: And said I'm innocent.
MR. CORRIGAN: He's going to plead not guilty and say he's not guilty anyway.
THE COURT: Let me finish. You let me finish.
MR. CORRIGAN: He hasn't held up the process at all.
THE COURT: I tried to stop him, saying all you're supposed to do is introduce yourself, and he gave me some lip.
MR. CORRIGAN: He didn't say anything.
THE COURT: He said I'm innocent.
APPELLANT: When I was talking to you earlier, you asked me a question and I answered it.
THE COURT: 3 to 6 months for contempt. Get used to it.
APPELLANT: 3 to 6 months?
THE COURT: Get used to it. That's right.
MR. CORRIGAN: I object, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Commonwealth –
APPELLANT: Please, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Stop talking.
APPELLANT: I didn't do anything.
THE COURT: 3 to 6 months for contempt more. 6 to 12 months. Now, I'm going to ask the Commonwealth, would the Commonwealth like to present the possible summary as a criminal mischief either to the jury or –
MR. CORRIGAN: Your Honor, with respect to the contempt, first of all, I just want to put on the record that while he did say his name, he said good afternoon when it was good morning and said he was innocent. He's pleading not guilty anyway, so that's not going to hold up the process of the jury. So he hasn't held up the process.
And with respect to Your Honor holding him in contempt, he just said for the second time he didn't do anything and he didn't understand what was going on. That also is not contemptuous.
He hasn't done anything which would hold up the process of this Court. He hasn't done anything which would –
THE COURT: Yes, he has.
MR. CORRIGAN: He hasn't done anything –
THE COURT: The fact that we have to talk about it right now means he's holding up the process. And you forget conveniently that he gave me lip after I told him to stop.
APPELLANT: I did not.
THE COURT: He gave me lip. And he's not going to control my courtroom. I'm going to control my courtroom.
So you need to know every time you disrupt my courtroom, I'm likely to hold you in contempt and give you 3 to 6 months. And so far we're at 6 to 12 months. If you want more, let me know.

N.T., 4/2/13, at 20-24.

The above excerpts from the notes of testimony contain the entirety of Appellant's remarks, actions, behavior, and conduct which the trial court perceived as contemptuous. Based on the foregoing, it is debatable whether Appellant was guilty of "misconduct." Stewart v. Foxworth, supra; Commonwealth v. Williams, 753 A.2d at 861-862 ("Misconduct is behavior that is inappropriate to the actor."). Also, although Appellant was clearly "in the presence of the court", his "intent to obstruct justice" and actual "obstruction of the administration of justice" are not manifest in the record. Our review of the certified record shows that the case proceeded to jury selection and trial on Appellant's underlying charges.[3] There is nothing to indicate that Appellant's conduct "significantly disrupted" the judicial proceedings. Williams, supra. The trial court's assertion that "the fact that we have to talk about it right now means he's holding up the process" (N.T., 4/2/13, at 24) is not supported by the record. Accordingly, we agree with Appellant that there was insufficient evidence to support his contempt convictions. Because we find merit to this first issue, we need not address Appellant's second issue.

Judgment of sentence vacated. Jurisdiction relinquished.

Judgment Entered.

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