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Commonwealth v. Spotti

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 5, 2014

ROLAND A. SPOTTI, JR., Appellant

Argued November 19, 2013.

Page 368

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Criminal Division, No(s): CP-02-CR-0010771-2009. Before RANGOS, J.

Paul D. Boas, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Amy E. Constantine, Assistant District Attorney, Pittsburgh, for Commonwealth, appellee.



Page 369


Roland A. Spotti, Jr., (" Appellant" ) appeals from the aggregate judgment of sentence of 2 -- 4 years' incarceration, which was imposed following his convictions by a jury trial of four counts of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol (AA-DUI), 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735.1, and related offenses.[1] We affirm.

This matter involves an April 16, 2008 accident on State Route 376 East, a four-lane highway near Robinson Township, Allegheny County. At 9:30 p.m. that evening, emergency services received multiple reports that Appellant's vehicle was driving erratically. One witness, Elise Blackwell, was advised by emergency services to follow Appellant with her hazard lights flashing in order to assist law enforcement in identifying Appellant's vehicle. Ms. Blackwell complied. Meanwhile, another motorist, Steven Chung, also contacted emergency services.

Responding State Trooper Thomas W. Armour was able to locate Appellant's vehicle once he observed Ms. Blackwell's hazard lights. Trooper Armour pursued Appellant's vehicle in the left lane with his siren and lights activated. Trooper Armour observed Appellant's vehicle repeatedly swerve into the right lane of traffic, where Mr. Chung and his sister were traveling. During a swerve into the right lane, Appellant braked suddenly, causing Mr. Chung to veer right in order to avoid colliding with Appellant's vehicle. Mr. Chung then collided with a disabled van which was on the side of the road, which in turn struck a tow truck that was there assisting the disabled van. Richard Benchoff and Eric Hamilton were severely injured as they were changing a tire on the van. Mr. Chung and his passenger, Susan Chung, were also injured.

Appellant, who later claimed to be unaware that the accident had occurred, continued to drive until Trooper Armour pulled him over. Appellant was transported to Ohio Valley Hospital where his blood was drawn. The blood was tested by the Allegheny County Crime Lab, which determined that Appellant's blood alcohol content (" BAC" ) was 0.203, significantly above the legal limit for adults.

At the time of the incident, Appellant was two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, and thus this case was initially brought before the Juvenile Section of the Family Division, Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. The Commonwealth filed to transfer the proceedings from juvenile to adult court, and a hearing on the matter was held on July 16, 2009. Following that hearing, the court granted the Commonwealth's motion and certified Appellant's case to the Criminal Division.

The matter proceeded to a jury trial, and on December 6, 2010, Appellant was convicted of the aforementioned charges. Appellant was sentenced to an aggregate term of 2 -- 4 years' incarceration. Appellant

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filed timely post-sentence motions which were denied by the trial court on March 28, 2011. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal with this Court, and then filed a timely concise statement in compliance with Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). On September 16, 2011, the trial court filed its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion.

Appellant presents the following issues on appeal:

I. Whether the Juvenile Court erred in transferring the case to Criminal Court by failing to properly follow the statutory provisions and errantly determining reasonable grounds to believe that the public interest is served by the transfer of the case for criminal prosecution?
II. Whether the lower court erred in denying [Appellant's] motion for judgment of acquittal regarding the four [AA-DUI] counts based on the intervening reckless acts of Mr. Chung?
III. Whether the Commonwealth failed to prove as a matter of law that the injuries to Steven Chung and Susan Chung constituted serious[] bodily injury which is necessary for [AA-DUI]?
IV. Whether the destruction of the video tape of [Appellant's] driving on the night in question constituted a violation of the United States Supreme Court decision of Brady v. Maryland?

Appellant's Brief at 3.

In an opinion filed on April 12, 2013, a divided panel of this court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Both the majority and the dissent agreed with respect to Appellant's first and fourth claims that the juvenile court did not err by certifying that Appellant be tried as an adult in criminal court, and that the destruction of the video tape did not constitute a Brady violation. However, with respect to his second claim, the majority opinion reversed Appellant's AA-DUI convictions, concluding that the Commonwealth had failed to establish sufficient evidence of causation. Consequently, the majority did not reach Appellant's third claim, as it had been rendered moot by the reversal of the AA-DUI convictions.

The Commonwealth filed an application for en banc reargument on April 26, 2013. The Commonwealth argued that the panel's majority had erred in distinguishing between criminal and civil standards of causation when it reversed Appellant's AA-DUI convictions, largely reflecting the opinion of the dissent. By per curiam order dated June 12, 2013, this Court granted reargument and withdrew the panel opinion.

Adult Certification

We first consider whether the juvenile court erred by certifying this case to be tried in criminal court. Our standard of review is as follows:

[T]he " ultimate decision of whether to certify a minor to stand trial as an adult is within the sole discretion of a juvenile court." An appellate court may not disturb a certification ruling unless the juvenile court committed an abuse of discretion. The existence of facts in the record that would support a contrary result does not demonstrate an abuse of discretion. Rather, " the court rendering the adult certification decision must have misapplied the law, exercised unreasonable judgment, or based its decision on ill will, bias, or prejudice."

Commonwealth v. In re E.F., 995 A.2d 326, 329, 606 Pa. 73 (Pa. 2010) (internal footnotes and citations omitted).

The Juvenile Act permits the transfer of a juvenile case to adult criminal court if

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there is a " prima facie case that the child committed the delinquent act alleged, the delinquent act would be considered a felony if committed by an adult, and if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the public interest would be served by the transfer of the case for criminal prosecution." Id. (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 6355(a)(4)(i)-(iii)). When a court assesses whether the public interest is served by the transfer, the Juvenile Act requires that the court consider the following factors:

(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:
(I) age;
II) mental capacity;
(III) maturity;
(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. § 6355(a)(4)(iii).

" [T]he Juvenile Act places the burden of proof upon the Commonwealth to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the public interest is served by the transfer of the case ... and that a child is not amenable to treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation as a juvenile." In re E.F., 995 A.2d at 330.

At the certification hearing, Trooper Armour testified regarding the nature and circumstances of the threat to safety posed by Appellant's intoxicated, erratic driving on April 16, 2008. N.T., 7/16/09, at 3 - 16. Victims Mr. Benchoff and Mr. Hamilton, along with their wives, testified about the impact of the incident on their lives, including the severe physical, emotional, and financial consequences arising from their injuries. Id. at 29 - 32, 33 - 39, 52 - 59, and 59 - 63. Candise Kovalchuk, Appellant's probation officer, testified to Appellant's lengthy involvement with the juvenile court system, which began when Appellant was 13 years old.[2] Id. at 41 - 48. The Commonwealth argued that Appellant's

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drunken driving posed a serious risk to the public. Id. at 71. It also argued that, due to Appellant's age, the adequacy and duration of available dispositional alternatives in the juvenile system were limited. Id. at 71 - 72.

Following the certification hearing, the juvenile court made the following statement on the record:

Your actions speak louder than your words, they really do. When you continue to drink - when, first of all, you are not even of legal age to do so - it just shows that person doesn't get it.
We are talking about a stone cold problem here, aren't we? This is not something I can deal with in two years. [Appellant] is obviously an alcoholic. There is no doubt in my mind.
Like [the district attorney] stated, when you have crippled two people and you can't quit drinking, you've got yourself a problem that is going to be with you the rest of your life. I'm sorry, I can't supervise you for the rest of your life. I can't do it. I have until he is 21. Not to mention the factors of public safety and impact on the victims.
* * *
I will note for the record that at the time this offense happened he was two months shy of being 18. I mean, he was making adult decisions. As far as I'm concerned, putting a drink to your lips is an adult decision, so I think you should be treated like an adult. They certainly are better capable of addressing what are going to be, as far as I am concerned, lifetime issues.
So based on the stipulation to the prima facie case, as well as the records stated, records admitted, evidence admitted, I am going to grant the Commonwealth's motion, and I am going to certify the case to the adult criminal division.

Id. at 74, 76.

The juvenile court then issued an order making the following findings:

The Commonwealth has established a prima facie case for [the aforementioned charges].
The Commonwealth has established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the public interest is served by the transfer of the case to criminal proceedings.
The Commonwealth has established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the juvenile is not amenable to treatment, supervision[,] or rehabilitation as a juvenile.
The minor has failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that retaining the case in [the juvenile division] serves the public interest.
The minor has failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he is amenable to treatment, supervision[,] ...

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