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Commonwealth v. Safka

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 25, 2014


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence June 26, 2012. In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-02-CR-0013937-2010. Before MANNING, J.

Robert E. Stewart, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Michael W. Streily, Deputy District Attorney, Pittsburgh, for Commonwealth, appellee.



Page 305


The Frye [1] test provides that " novel scientific evidence is admissible if the methodology

Page 306

that underlies the evidence has general acceptance in the relevant scientific community." Grady v. Frito-Lay, Inc., 576 Pa. 546, 839 A.2d 1038, 1043-1044 (Pa. 2003). Appellant, Ryan David Safka, argues, among other things, that the admission of evidence as to the speed of his vehicle based solely on the data retrieved from his vehicle's Event Data Recorder (" EDR" ) fails the Frye test. Whether EDR data may be used to establish a vehicle's speed is an issue of first impression in this Commonwealth. We hold that determining a vehicle's speed based on data recovered from an EDR is not novel scientific evidence and, thus, does not violate the Frye test.

The trial court set forth the relevant facts and procedural history as follows:

[Appellant], Ryan Safka, was charged by criminal information with two counts of Homicide by Vehicle (75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3732(a)); three counts of Involuntary Manslaughter (18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2504(a) ); one count of Recklessly Endangering Another Person (18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2705); and several other vehicle violations including Reckless Driving (75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3736(a)); Disregard Traffic Lane (Single) (75 Pa.C.S.A. 3309(1)); Speeding (75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3362); and Driving at an Unsafe Speed (75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3361). [Appellant] elected to proceed to bench trial and executed a jury trial waiver.
Trial commenced on February 6, 2012. During the Commonwealth's case [Appellant] challenged the admissibility and weight of evidence derived from what was described as an Event Data Recorder (EDR)[2], a device in [Appellant]'s vehicle that records speed and things of that nature, much like the well[-]known " black box" does on commercial aircraft. Testimony was presented concerning the results of the examination of the EDR. [Appellant], although aware that the Commonwealth would present such evidence, did not seek to exclude it pre-trial but, rather, made an oral Motion in Limine seeking to exdude it at the commencement of trial. The [c]ourt allowed the evidence, but, in that it was a non-jury trial, made no determination at that time as the weight that it would be afforded, stating that it would be given the appropriate weight. The parties rested on February 7 and made argument to the [c]ourt. The [c]ourt did not render a verdict, indicating that it would review the matter overnight.
After reviewing the record and conducting legal research into the admissibility and reliability of evidence obtained from an EDR, the [c]ourt determined that the record was incomplete with regard to the accuracy and reliability of evidence from an EDR. The [c]ourt advised the parties that it would reopen the record and permit both parties to present evidence concerning the EDR evidence on February 21, 2012. On February 14, 2012[,] [Appellant] filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus and Entry Verdict arguing that the [c]ourt was without power to reopen the record and that the entry of a verdict of Not Guilty was required based upon the evidence presented. The Commonwealth filed a response. The Motion was denied.
On February 21, 2012[,] the trial was reconvened and the parties were permitted to present additional evidence concerning the evidence taken from the EDR. The Commonwealth presented additional testimony from the reconstruction expert and from an expert on the

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functioning of EDR. [Appellant] presented no additional evidence. The parties made additional argument. The [c]ourt then announced it[s] verdicts, adjudging [Appellant] guilty at all counts.
On June 26, 2012, [Appellant] was sentenced to not less than ten (10) nor more than twenty-four (24) months at each of the Homicide by Vehicle Counts charged at counts 1 through 3. The sentences [were imposed to] run consecutive to one another. No further penalty was imposed at counts 4 through 6, as they merged with counts 1 through 3. The [c]ourt also imposed no further penalty on the Recklessly Endangering Another Person charge. The aggregate sentence imposed ... was not less than thirty (30) nor more than seventy-two (72) months.
[Appellant] filed a Post Sentencing Motion seeking a new trial and/or an arrest of judgment and a Post Sentence Motion seeking reconsideration of sentence. Both were denied and [Appellant] appealed.

Trial Court 1925(a) Opinion at 2-4.

Appellant presents two (2) issues for our review:

I. Whether the trial court erred in the admission of evidence as to the speed of [Appellant's] motor vehicle based solely on the information contained in the vehicle's on board computer in violation of the standard set forth in Frye[?]
II. Whether the trial court erred after the close of all the evidence by sua sponte requesting both [the] prosecution and [the] defense reopen their case for the presentation of additional evidence[?]

Appellant's Brief at 6.

We begin with Appellant's first claim regarding the admission of the EDR data. When reviewing evidentiary rulings by the trial court, our standard of review is narrow. " [T]he admission of expert scientific testimony is an evidentiary matter for the trial court's discretion and should not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court abuses its discretion." Commonwealth ...

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