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[U] Commonwealth v. Sloan

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 13, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
JOHN SLOAN, Appellant

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the PCRA Order June 12, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Criminal Division at Nos.: CP-02-CR-0002956-2011 CP-02-CR-0003278-2011

BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., DONOHUE, J., and PLATT, J. [*]

MEMORANDUM

PLATT, J.

Appellant, John Sloan, appeals from the order denying his petition for relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 9541–9546. He claims the PCRA court erred by denying him an evidentiary hearing. The PCRA court has not provided a compliant Rule 1925(a) opinion. Accordingly, we remand.

This is a collateral appeal based on two separate judgments of sentence.[1] On December 5, 2011, Appellant entered a counseled plea of nolo contendere to the charges at Criminal Information 201102956, [2] and Criminal Information 201103278.[3]

On the same day, the court sentenced Appellant to the negotiated aggregate sentence of not less than four nor more than eight years' incarceration in a state correctional institution, to be followed by two years of state supervised probation. As part of the negotiated plea, the Commonwealth withdrew the charge of criminal trespass. Appellant did not file post-sentence motions or a direct appeal.

On December 5, 2012, Appellant filed a pro se request for post-conviction relief. The PCRA court appointed counsel who subsequently filed a "Turner/Finley" no-merit letter and a motion to withdraw. See Commonwealth v. Turner, 544 A.2d 927 (Pa. 1988); Commonwealth v. Finley, 550 A.2d 213 (Pa. Super. 1988) (en banc). On March 28, 2013, the PCRA court entered an order granting counsel's petition to withdraw, and serving notice of its intent to dismiss Appellant's PCRA petition without a hearing. (See Order, 3/28/13). The court denied Appellant's petition by order dated June 12, 2013, (filed June 13, 2013), citing its Notice of Intention to Dismiss. (See Order, 6/13/13).

Appellant timely appealed, pro se.[4] The PCRA Court filed an order referencing its Notice of Intention to Dismiss for the reasons denying Appellant's petition. (See Order, 9/17/13). The PCRA court also appointed new counsel for Appellant, who continues to represent him in this appeal. (See id.). The court subsequently vacated the order of September 17, 2013, in a substitute order which substantially tracked the September 17 order. (See Order, 10/08/13). In particular, the October 8 order repeated the recitation that it had satisfied the requirement of Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(a), by reference to the Notice of Intention to Dismiss, dated March 28, 2013.

Appellant raises one question for our review:
Did the [PCRA] [c]ourt err when it dismissed Appellant's [a]mended [p]etition for Post Conviction [r]elief without an evidentiary hearing relative to Appellant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel wherein Appellant's claims were not "patently frivolous" and, if proven, would have entitled Appellant to relief?

(Appellant's Brief, at 5).

Appellant argues that the PCRA court should have held an evidentiary hearing on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. (See Appellant's Brief, at 8). He alleges counsel was deficient in pre-trial preparation. He also claims counsel should have litigated a motion to suppress. Further, he alleges his guilty plea was not knowing, voluntary and intelligent because "trial counsel essentially abandoned his right to file and litigate pre-trial motions." (Id.).

Our standard of review for an order denying PCRA relief is whether the record supports the PCRA court's determination, and whether the PCRA court's determination is free of legal error. The PCRA court's findings will not be disturbed unless there is no support for the findings in the certified record.

Commonwealth v. Phillips, 31 A.3d 317, 319 (Pa. Super. 2011), appeal denied, 42 A.3d 1059 (Pa. 2012) (citations omitted).

Preliminarily, here, we observe that the PCRA court's Rule 1925(a) statement is not responsive to the issues raised by Appellant. The court's order of October 8, 2013, tracking the order of September 17, repeated the recitation that it had satisfied the requirement of Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a), stating that "[t]his satisfies the requirement of Pa.R.App. [sic] 1925 that the [c]ourt set forth its reasons for issuing the [o]rder appealed from." (Order, 10/08/13). We are constrained to disagree.

First, the single page order of March 28, 2013 does not state any reasons for the notice of intention to dismiss. (See Order, 3/28/13). Rather, the order, in relevant part, merely states:

[B]ased on the No-Merit Letter and Petition to Withdraw as Counsel pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551 (1987) [sic] and Commonwealth v. Turner, 544 A.2d 927 (Pa. 1988) filed by appointed counsel, it is hereby ORDERED that the Petition to Withdraw as Counsel is GRANTED, and the Petitioner is put on notice that the [c]ourt intends to dismiss Petitioner's Application for Post Conviction Relief without a hearing.

(Id.).

On June 13, 2013, the court filed its denial of the PCRA petition. In relevant part that order stated: "AND NOW this 12th day of June, 2013, it is ORDERED, that, for the reason set forth in the Notice of Intention to Dismiss, dated March 28, 2013, the defendant's Post Conviction Relief Act Petition is DENIED." (Order, 6/13/13) (emphasis in original). These statements are insufficient to enable meaningful appellate review.

To enable appellate review, PCRA courts are required to provide "a legally robust discussion, complete with clear findings of fact where required." Commonwealth v. Dennis, 597 Pa. 159, 950 A.2d 945, 957 (2008); see also Commonwealth v. Craig Williams, 566 Pa. 553, 782 A.2d 517, 522–23 (2001); Commonwealth v. Roy Williams, 557 Pa. 207, 732 A.2d 1167, 1181 (1999) (remanding and directing the PCRA court to render "findings of fact and conclusions of law" in support of its disposition of issues turning on credibility). A fact-finding court should support its holding with sufficient explanations of the facts and law to facilitate appellate review. Commonwealth v. Weiss, 604 Pa. 573, 986 A.2d 808, 816 n. 4 (2009) (remanding where the PCRA court failed to address the "salient inquiry"); Commonwealth v. Beasley, 600 Pa. 458, 967 A.2d 376, 391 (2009) (remanding to permit the PCRA court to prepare an opinion addressing all claims raised in the amended post-conviction petition, and expressly resolve areas of material, factual controversy and material credibility disputes via numbered factual findings); Commonwealth v. Peoples, 599 Pa. 254, 961 A.2d 109, 110 (2008) (remanding and directing the PCRA court to address all properly presented claims). Where a petitioner has presented a claim to the PCRA court and that court has not addressed it, a remand is appropriate where the claim cannot be resolved on the record.

Commonwealth v. Smith, 17 A.3d 873, 884 (Pa. 2011), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 24 (2012).

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that the PCRA court intended to state that it denied the petition on the basis of the conclusions reached in the Turner/Finley letter, that rationale is itself legally insufficient. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 732 A.2d 1167, 1176 (Pa. 1999) (refusing to condone wholesale adoption by post-conviction court of an advocate's brief); see also Commonwealth v. Fulton, 876 A.2d 342 (Pa. 2002):

A central concern in our decisions in this area has to do with the proper function of the trial courts and the necessity of articulating the court's independent judicial analysis in support of dispositive orders so as to better focus appeals and better facilitate the appellate function. The need for such an independent judicial analysis does not depend upon the type of crime for which the defendant was convicted, as this function is no less defeated by the absence of independent judicial reasoning in a non-capital case than in a capital case. This is particularly so where, as here, the PCRA petition was summarily dismissed without a hearing.

Id. at 345.

Accordingly, we vacate the order of the PCRA court and remand this case for the filing, within sixty days of the date of this decision, of a Rule 1925(a) opinion responsive to the issues raised, presenting specific reasons for the denial of the instant petition without a hearing.

Order vacated.

Case remanded with instructions.

Panel jurisdiction retained.


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