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[U] Commonwealth v. Mathis

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 6, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence May 3, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County Criminal Division at Nos. CP-07-CR-0002104-2012, CP-07-CR-0002105-2012




Appellant, Marquis D. Mathis, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered following his guilty plea to criminal conspiracy, simple assault, possession of a firearm by a minor, discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure, and two counts each of robbery, terroristic threats, recklessly endangering another person (REAP) and aggravated assault. Specifically, he challenges the trial court's denial of his motion for decertification and transfer to the juvenile justice system. We affirm.

Appellant, born September 11, 1994, turned eighteen in September 2012. He grew up in Philadelphia without consistent supervision and became "parentified" in that he was responsible for caring for his younger siblings, because his father was absent and his mother struggled with drug problems. (See N.T., 7/17/12, at 2, 4-5). He began drinking alcohol and doing drugs around age thirteen or fourteen, became involved with a bad peer group, and was ultimately expelled for bringing a pocket knife to school. (Id. at 6, 8-9, 12, 30).

Appellant moved to Altoona, PA, with his mother in August 2010. (Id. at 20). He attended the Kimmel School, where he had no disciplinary sanctions or tardiness, and was a good student academically. (Id. at 16, 31, 38). However, he began using drugs and missing school, and ran away from home. (Id. at 27-28). He then moved in with a cousin who was involved with drugs and guns and is now incarcerated at Camp Hill SCI. (Id. at 58-59).

On February 1, 2012, around 10:00 p.m., Linda McCauley was walking toward 17th Street in Altoona, across the street from Goodman's Garage, when three men in hoodies and bandannas surrounded her. (N.T., 8/20/12, at 120-21). She became frightened and ran to the garage, which had lights on and was open. (Id. at 121-22).

Meanwhile, Brian Miller and his fiancée were walking home down an alley near the 17th Street Sheetz in Altoona when three people ran up from behind them and mugged them at gunpoint. (See N.T., 7/17/12, at 227-28). The three individuals were wearing hoodies and bandannas over their faces and it was dark, but Miller could see that the individual holding the gun was African American. (Id. at 228-29). When Miller turned to walk away, one of them hit him with something like a brick on the back of the head. (Id. at 229). His fiancée became hysterical and dropped to the ground. (Id. at 251).

Randy Goodman was working in Goodman's Garage when McCauley came in "in hysterics" and told him that someone had tried to mug her out in front of his store. (Id. at 243). Goodman ran out into the alley, which was about fifteen feet from the entrance to his garage, where he saw three individuals standing over Miller. (Id. at 235-36). He saw one of them strike Miller on the head. (Id.). Goodman grabbed for the individual who had hit Miller, and his bandanna fell down so Goodman could see his face before he ran off after the other two individuals. (Id. at 236, 248). Goodman saw something in his hand but could not identify it because the alley was dark. (Id. at 242). Goodman carried Miller back to his garage and called the police. (Id. at 244). Goodman later identified the person he grabbed in a photographic lineup as Appellant, who is African American. (Id. at 236-37, 245).

Three weeks later, on February 22, 2012, around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., Keith Lego and his friend, Zach Rutherford, were in Lego's garage at 2110 6th Avenue in Altoona when Appellant walked in with what appeared to be a .44 Mag revolver and told them "to give him all [their] stuff." (N.T., 8/20/12, at 137; see id. at 165). Lego laughed at him, and Appellant hit Lego in the face with the gun, cutting him. (Id. at 138). Appellant, who was about two feet away from Lego, pulled the hammer back and fired the gun to the left of Lego and Rutherford. (Id. at 138-41). They gave him their cell phones, Rutherford's wallet, and Lego's lighter, and after he left, Lego called the police. (Id. at 150).

That night, Officer Cory Smeal apprehended Appellant at 2511 West Chestnut Avenue, where he also observed a handgun and a spent casing. (Id. at 175, 179). After handcuffing and searching Appellant, police recovered Rutherford's wallet, two cell phones, and Lego's lighter, among other things. (Id. at 186-87). Police brought Lego and Rutherford to Appellant, and they identified him as the man who came into Lego's garage. (Id. at 150-51, 166). After obtaining a search warrant for 2511 West Chestnut, police found "[a] .38 revolver; one spent .38 casing; nine live .38 rounds; a partial box of .38 ammunition and . . . multiple [items of] clothing." (Id. at 187-88; see id. at 189-90).

Appellant was charged at Docket No. 2104 of 2012 with one count each of robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, terroristic threats, REAP, two counts of conspiracy, and three counts each of disorderly conduct and harassment. At Docket No. 2105 of 2012, Appellant was charged with two counts each of robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, terroristic threats, simple assault, REAP, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, and harassment, and one count of possession of a firearm by a minor. (See Motion for Decertification, 3/13/12, at unnumbered pages 1-2). On March 13, 2012, Appellant filed a petition to transfer proceedings from "adult court" to the juvenile justice system. (Id. at unnumbered page 2). After a hearing, held over two days on July 17 and August 20, 2012, the trial court denied the motion by order and opinion of September 7, 2012. On May 3, 2013, Appellant pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy, simple assault, possession of a firearm by a minor, discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure, and two counts each of robbery, terroristic threats, REAP, and aggravated assault. The trial court sentenced him to an aggregate term of not less than five nor more than fifteen years' incarceration. (See Order, 5/03/13, at 1-10). Appellant filed post-sentence motions, which the trial court denied on August 1, 2013, and Appellant timely appealed.[1]

Appellant raises one question for our review:

Given that the totality of the evidence showed Appellant's alleged crimes had a low level of sophistication, relatively little public impact, along with Appellant's good grades, lack of juveniles [sic] record, and an amenability to treatment, did the [trial] court err in denying decertification to the juvenile division of the Blair County Court of Common Pleas?

(Appellant's Brief, at 2).

Appellant argues that the trial court committed a "gross abuse of discretion" because it "focused solely on the aspects of the crimes" and that "the majority of the evidence showed [Appellant] was a rather unsophisticated perpetrator, neglected as a child, struggled with drugs and alcohol, but was a bright and attentive student who showed promise and would have greatly benefited from the structure of a juvenile detention facility." (Id. at 6). We disagree.

Preliminarily, we observe that Appellant may challenge the trial court's decision to deny decertification despite pleading guilty. As explained by our Supreme Court:

Absent unusual circumstances, a guilty plea constitutes a waiver of any non-jurisdictional defects or defenses. However, since one of the prime purposes of the Juvenile Act is to spare from adult punishment certain youths whose behavior would necessarily render them guilty of adult crimes . . . and since the decision to, or not to transfer is interlocutory and thus only appealable after sentencing[, ] we find the instant challenge to be properly preserved.

Commonwealth v. Pyle, 342 A.2d 101, 103 n.4 (Pa. 1975) (citations omitted).

Our standard of review is well-settled:

Decisions of whether to grant decertification will not be overturned absent a gross abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion is not merely an error of judgment but involves the misapplication or overriding of the law or the exercise of a manifestly unreasonable judgment passed upon partiality, prejudice or ill will.

Commonwealth v. Ruffin, 10 A.3d 336, 338 (Pa.Super. 2010) (citations omitted).

As amended in 1995, the Juvenile Act vests original jurisdiction in the criminal courts for specified violent felonies, e.g., rape, aggravated assault and robbery committed by minors aged fifteen or older who either used a deadly weapon in the commission of the offense or were previously adjudicated delinquent for such crimes. Prior to the amendments, those serious felonies initially came within the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, subject to certification and transfer to adult court. The 1995 amendments reflect a legislative judgment that the most serious violent felonies should be treated in the same manner as murder charges, i.e., as adult crimes in adult court, at least in the first instance.
The amendments, however, also provide a mechanism for a minor to prove to the court that he does not belong in criminal court. Thus, § 6322 of the Juvenile Act allows a defendant to petition to have his case transferred to juvenile court. The standard governing such transfers is as follows:
. . . In determining whether to transfer a case charging murder or any of the offenses excluded from the definition of "delinquent act" in section 6302, the child shall be required to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the transfer will serve the public interest. In determining whether the child has so established that the transfer will serve the public interest, the court shall consider the factors contained in section 6355(a)(4)(iii) (relating to transfer to criminal proceedings).
42 Pa.C.S. § 6322(a).

Commonwealth v. Cotto, 753 A.2d 217, 219-20 (Pa. 2000) (footnote omitted).

Section 6355 provides that the relevant factors that the court must consider are:

(A)the impact of the offense on the victim or victims;
(B)the impact of the offense on the community;
(C)the threat to the safety of the public or any individual posed by the child;
(D)the nature and circumstances of the offense allegedly committed by the child;
(E)the degree of the child's culpability;
(F)the adequacy and duration of dispositional alternatives available under this chapter and in the adult criminal justice system; and
(G)whether the child is amenable to treatment, supervision or rehabilitation as a juvenile by considering the following factors:
(II)mental capacity;
(IV)the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the child;
(V)previous records, if any;
(VI)the nature and extent of any prior delinquent history, including the success or failure of any previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the child;
(VII)whether the child can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court jurisdiction;
(VIII)probation or institutional reports, if any; (IX)any other relevant factors[.] 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(iii).

Here, the trial court addressed factors (A) through (E) of section 6355 as follows:

Considering the impact of the offense on the victim or victims, the [c]ourt finds from the testimony that these offenses involved direct threats on multiple victims with two different kinds of weapons, one being a hand gun, a deadly weapon. All victims were afraid; some of the victims were injured; and all felt violated by these incidents. In considering the impact of the offense[s on] the community, these crimes, which were committed in public and witnessed by members of the public, would have great impact on the community, being some of the most serious crimes a defendant can commit. The community members who were involved as witnesses and rescuers in this matter were impacted adversely by [Appellant]. In considering the threat to the safety of the public and any individual imposed by [Appellant], the [c]ourt finds that [Appellant] possess[es] an extreme danger and threat to the safety of the public. The prima facie case was established that he struck an individual across the face with a weapon, that he discharged the weapon, that [he] stole property from those victims, that he chased and hit another individual in the head and stole property from that victim, and the circumstantial evidence shows that he pursued yet another individual who escaped his attack. The above recitation also goes to the nature and circumstances of the offenses allegedly committed by [Appellant], which are among the worst in our Crimes Code. In regards to the degree of [Appellant's] culpability, the [c]ourt finds that the witnesses identified him both in person and in a photo lineup as the one responsible for the crimes.

(Trial Court Opinion, 9/07/12, at 13-14); see also 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(A)-(E). Our independent review of the decertification hearing transcripts reveals that the testimony of Brian Miller, Linda McCauley, Randy Goodman, Keith Lego, and Zach Rutherford supports the trial court's assessment of the prima facie case against Appellant and the attendant circumstances and effects of his crimes. (See N.T. Hearing, 7/17/12, at 227-34, 235-59; N.T. Hearing, 8/20/12, at 118-36, 137-56, 156-69).

The trial court further addressed factors (F) and (G), regarding the adequacy and duration of dispositional alternatives and Appellant's amenability to treatment, and determined that Appellant was nearly 18 at the time of his petition for decertification, and that, considering "the nature of his offenses and his condition of Conduct Disorder, which Dr. Antonowicz testified is very difficult to treat, the adequacy and duration of the juvenile system would not fit his case." (Trial Ct. Op., at 14); see also 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(F)-(G).

The court considered each sub-factor to determine whether Appellant was amenable to treatment, and determined, among other things, that Appellant "acts like an adult" and exhibited an "adult degree" of sophistication in the crimes, as the prima facie case indicated that "he conspired with other individuals to prey on the public as a robber." (Trial Ct. Op., at 14); see also 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(G). Furthermore, the court found that "the juvenile system could only afford [Appellant] three years of structured treatment, until age 21[ and t]hree years is not sufficiently 'long-term' so as to meet [Appellant's] needs." (Trial Ct. Op., at 15). Finally, the court concluded that "there is a need to protect the community from [Appellant] during his long-term period of rehabilitation." (Id.). This is supported by the testimony of Dr. Joseph Antonowicz, who discussed Appellant's conduct disorder and substance abuse problems, and stated that "[t]here is a disturbing pattern of escalating behavior here." (N.T. 8/20/12, at 32; see id. at 13-14, 17, 22-23).[2]

Appellant contests the findings made by the trial court, and asserts that it "gave short shrift to the positive factors while focusing mainly on the aspects of the alleged crimes." (Appellant's Brief, at 8). This is essentially a challenge to the weight that the trial court assigned to each factor.

Although the Juvenile Act requires that a decertification court consider all of the amenability factors, it is silent as to the weight that should be assessed to each factor. The ultimate decision of whether to certify a minor to stand trial as an adult is within the sole discretion of a decertification court. A decertification court must consider all the facts set forth in § 6355 of the Juvenile Act, but it need not address, seriatim, the applicability and importance of each factor and fact in reaching its final determination.

Ruffin, supra at 339 (citations omitted). Furthermore, where "reasons exist of record which support the decertification court's decision, we cannot reweigh the factors or evidence presented." Commonwealth v. Sanders, 814 A.2d 1248, 1253 (Pa.Super. 2003), appeal denied, 827 A.2d 430 (Pa. 2003).

Here, the trial court set forth and discussed each factor when assessing the decertification issue, and its determination that Appellant failed to carry his burden of proof that transfer to the juvenile court would serve the public interest is not a gross abuse of discretion. See Cotto, supra at 219-20; cf. Commonwealth v. Sourbeer, 422 A.2d 116, 120 (Pa. 1980) (holding transfer was properly denied where it was demonstrated that defendant could not be rehabilitated within time constraints of juvenile jurisdiction); Commonwealth v. Aziz, 724 A.2d 371, 379 (Pa.Super. 1999), appeal denied, 759 A.2d 919 (Pa. 2000) (affirming denial of decertification where appellant exhibited a "significant pattern of violent and escalating criminal behavior").

The trial court's findings are supported by the hearing testimony, and thus, we will not disturb its decision. See Ruffin, supra at 338-39. Appellant's issue does not merit relief.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

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