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Commonwealth v. Jemison

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 18, 2014


Argued April 8, 2014

Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered January 4, 2013 at No. 1588 WDA 2011, affirming the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County entered August 31, 2011 at No. CP-02-CR-0009708-2010. Trial Court Judge: Jill E. Rangos, Judge. Intermediate Court Judges: Jack A. Panella, Cheryl Lynn Allen, Gene Strassburger, Judges.

For Duane Jemison, Jr., APPELLANT: Norma Chase, Esq.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, APPELLEE: Francesco Lino Nepa, Esq., Michael Wayne Streily, Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

BEFORE: MR. JUSTICE McCAFFERY. Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Mr. Justice Eakin, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice Stevens join the opinion. Mr. Justice Baer files a dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Saylor joins.


Page 1255


In this case, we consider the continued viability of Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583 (Pa. 1982), wherein we held that the prosecution is not required to accept a defendant's offer to stipulate to the fact of a prior conviction when the conviction is an element of the offense charged. Concluding that Stanley remains the law of this Commonwealth, despite the United States Supreme Court's holding in Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172, 117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574 (1997), we affirm the Superior Court's order affirming the judgment of sentence imposed on Duane Jemison, Jr. (" Appellant" ).

In the early morning hours of May 16, 2010, a Pittsburgh police officer on foot patrol came upon Appellant's car which was parked improperly in a legally marked handicapped parking spot. Upon running the car's license plate number through his vehicle's computer, the officer discovered that the car had been carjacked a few days before. As other officers arrived at the scene, Appellant entered the car and started to drive away, but was immediately stopped by a police vehicle in his path. The officers ordered Appellant to get out of the car. He did not comply, but rather moved one of his hands downward toward the floorboard, where one of the officers then observed a gun. The officers apprehended Appellant from the vehicle, and recovered from the floorboard a gun with the hammer back, the safety off, and a round in the chamber.

Appellant was charged with persons not to possess a firearm, carrying a firearm without a license, resisting arrest, and two counts of receiving stolen property.[1] He was tried by jury for persons not to possess a firearm, 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105(a)(1),

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after this charge had been severed from the others. To establish Appellant's guilt of this charge, the Commonwealth was required to prove that Appellant had been previously convicted of a statutorily enumerated offense that barred him from possessing a firearm, and that he had, indeed, possessed a firearm.[2] It was undisputed that, in 2008, Appellant had been convicted of robbery, one of the statutorily enumerated offenses, see 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105(b), and the Commonwealth sought to introduce at trial the evidence of this robbery conviction. However, Appellant sought to stipulate only that he had been convicted of one of the enumerated offenses, without stating that the specific offense was robbery.

The trial court allowed the Commonwealth to introduce into evidence Appellant's certified conviction of robbery. See Notes of Testimony, Trial (" N.T." ), 6/29/11, at 50 (introducing Commonwealth's Exhibit 1). Immediately thereafter, the trial court instructed the jury " not to consider the defendant's prior conviction as evidence of his propensity to commit crime but only as proof of the element of this specific offense." Id. at 50-51. After both sides had rested, the trial judge repeated this instruction during her charge to the jury. Id. at 137.

At the end of the one-day trial, on June 29, 2011, the jury found Appellant guilty of persons not to possess a firearm. On August 31, 2011, Appellant pled guilty to two additional charges, to wit, carrying a firearm without a license and resisting arrest.[3] The court sentenced Appellant as follows: for persons not to possess a firearm, not less than 5 nor more than 10 years of incarceration; for carrying a firearm without a license, not less than 3 nor more than 6 years of incarceration; and for resisting arrest, not less than 1 nor more than 2 years of incarceration, with all sentences to be served concurrently.

Appellant appealed to the Superior Court, contending that the trial court had abused its discretion by admitting evidence of his prior conviction for robbery when he had been willing to stipulate to a statutorily enumerated conviction. The Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence, concluding that the trial court had properly applied this Court's binding precedent of Stanley, supra. See Commonwealth v. Jemison, 64 A.3d 271 (Pa.Super., 2013) (Table). Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal with this Court, which we granted.

The sole issue before us, as stated by Appellant, is the following:

Whether in a prosecution for possession of a firearm by a person not permitted to possess one, the prosecution should no longer be permitted to introduce the record of the disqualifying criminal conviction when the defendant is willing to

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stipulate that he is within the class of persons prohibited from possessing firearms.

Commonwealth v. Jemison, 620 Pa. 597, 71 A.3d 248 (Pa. 2013).

We also directed the parties to address whether Pennsylvania should henceforth follow the holding of the United States Supreme Court in Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172, 117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574 (1997), and overrule Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583 (Pa. 1982). Jemison, supra. Pursuant to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution art. VI, cl. 2,[4] this Court, like all state courts, is bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court with respect to the federal Constitution and federal substantive law. See, e.g., Council 13, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 604 Pa. 352, 986 A.2d 63, 77 (Pa. 2009). However, when resolving matters that involve no federal question, this Court is not bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. See Commonwealth v. McFeely, 509 Pa. 394, 502 A.2d 167, 169 (Pa. 1985). As will be made clear infra, the issue presented here involves no federal question, and thus, we are not bound by the high Court's resolution of the issue. As both parties acknowledge, this Court addressed the question presented here approximately 30 years ago in Stanley, supra, and the trial court was bound by Stanley's precedent in the instant case. Appellant, however, urges us to overturn Stanley. The issue presented is a pure question of law and thus our standard of review is de novo and our scope is plenary. Commonwealth v. Dowling, 598 Pa. 611, 959 A.2d 910, 913 (Pa. 2008).

In Stanley, the defendant-appellant, who had previously been convicted of murder, was on trial for, inter alia, persons not to possess a firearm. At the time Stanley was decided, the statute barred an individual from possessing a firearm if he or she had been convicted of a " crime of violence," which was defined to include murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, entering a building with intent to commit a crime therein, and kidnapping. Id. at 588. Stanley offered to stipulate that he had a prior conviction for a " crime of violence," but the prosecution refused to accept the stipulation. Instead, the prosecutor called a prison records custodian and an assistant district attorney to testify that Stanley had been convicted of first-degree murder several months before; there was no reference at trial to the facts underlying the prior murder conviction. On appeal, Stanley argued that the trial court erred in allowing this testimony because the mention of his murder conviction was unduly prejudicial in light of his offer to stipulate to a " crime of violence." Id. This Court disagreed, concluding as follows:

[Stanley's prior] murder conviction was undisputedly material and relevant to proving that he committed a " crime of violence." As such, it was " proper" evidence, squarely within Commonwealth v. Evans, 465 Pa. 12, 348 A.2d 92 (1975)[,] which held that the Commonwealth may use any " proper" evidence to prove its case, and does not have to accept the accused's stipulations.

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Stanley, supra at 588 (emphasis in original).[5]

Although Stanley's holding is clear and controlling in the instant case, Appellant insists that Stanley has been " undermined" by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Old Chief, supra. Appellant's Brief at 11. In Old Chief, the defendant-appellant (Old Chief) was charged with assault and with possession of a firearm by an individual who has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).[6] Before trial, Old Chief offered to stipulate that he had a prior conviction disqualifying him from firearms possession under § 922(g)(1), without identifying the specific offense of which he had previously been convicted. Old Chief, supra at 174-75. The prosecution refused to accept this stipulation, and instead introduced the order of judgment and commitment for Old Chief's prior conviction, which disclosed that he had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment for assault resulting in serious bodily injury. Id. at 177. After the jury found Old Chief guilty on all counts, he appealed, contending that he had been unfairly prejudiced by the trial court's refusal to allow the stipulation.

In its analysis of the case, the high Court first recognized that documentary evidence of Old Chief's prior assault conviction was relevant to proving the § 922(g)(1) charge. Old Chief, supra at 179. However, citing Federal Rule of Evidence (" F.R.E." ) 403, pursuant to which relevant evidence is properly excluded when its " probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of [ inter alia ] unfair prejudice," the high Court concluded that " evidence of the name or nature of the prior offense generally carries a risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant," the degree of which will vary from case to case, " but will be substantial whenever the official record offered by the Government would be arresting enough to lure a juror into a sequence of bad character reasoning." Old Chief, supra at 180, 185. The high Court noted that one " appropriate factor" for a court to consider when deciding whether to exclude evidence as unfairly prejudicial under F.R.E. 403 is the " availability of other means of proof." Old Chief, supra at 184. As viewed by the ...

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