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Commonwealth v. Descardes

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 23, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
CLAUDE DESCARDES, Appellee

Argued October 16, 2013

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Montgomery County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-46-CR-0000617-2006. Before SMYTH, J.

Kelly M. Sekula, Office of the Attorney General, Norristown, for Commonwealth, appellant.

William J. Honig, Norristown and Timothy P. Wile, Public Defender, Norristown, for appellee.

BEFORE: BENDER, P.J., FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., BOWES, J., PANELLA, J., DONOHUE, J., SHOGAN, J., LAZARUS, J., OLSON, J., and WECHT, J. OPINION BY PANELLA, J. Judge Donohue concurs in the result. Judge Bowes files a concurring and dissenting opinion in which Judge Olson joins, and Judge Donohue concurs in the result.

OPINION

Page 106

PANELLA, J.

After pleading guilty to insurance fraud[1] and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud,[2] and serving a probationary sentence, Claude Descardes, a resident alien, left the country for personal business. United States immigration officials denied him re-entry due to his felony convictions. After unsuccessful attempts to withdraw his guilty plea, Descardes became aware that the United States Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 130 S.Ct. 1473, 176 L.Ed.2d 284 (2010), which held that a criminal defense attorney has an affirmative duty to inform a defendant that the offense for which he pleads guilty will result in his removal from the country. Descardes filed a petition for a writ of coram nobis relying on Padilla. In his petition, Descardes alleged that his guilty plea counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him of the adverse immigration consequences of his guilty plea. The trial court treated the coram nobis petition as a petition pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (" PCRA" ), 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § § 9541-9546, and granted him relief.

In this appeal, we consider whether the trial court properly granted Descardes relief. Initially, we find that the trial court erred procedurally, and that it should have adjudicated the petition as a coram nobis petition. Further, we hold that Descardes is not entitled to relief due to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Chaidez v. United States, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 1103, 185 L.Ed.2d 149 (2013), which held that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

A short discussion of the procedural background is necessary before we address the issues involved. As previously

Page 107

mentioned, Descardes, a Haitian national with resident alien status, pled guilty on August 9, 2006. On November 30, 2006, Descardes was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay a $100.00 fine. Descardes did not pursue a direct appeal.

Subsequent thereto, Descardes left the United States but was denied re-entry due to his felony conviction.[3] On December 7, 2009, Descardes filed a Petition for Reconsideration and Review of Denial of Petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobis, which raised, among other things, allegations that plea counsel was ineffective for failing to advise Descardes of the mandatory collateral consequence of deportation. The trial court treated Descardes's petition as a petition for relief under the PCRA and dismissed the petition as untimely on March 12, 2010.

On April 6, 2010, Descardes filed a second petition for writ of coram nobis based on the United States Supreme Court's decision in Padilla, which held that a criminal defense attorney has an affirmative duty to inform a defendant that the offense for which he pleads guilty will result in his removal from the country. Treating the petition as a PCRA petition, the court vacated Descardes's judgment of sentence and ordered the August 9, 2006 guilty plea withdrawn. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal.

We must first consider whether the trial court properly treated Descardes's petition for a writ of coram nobis as a PCRA petition.

Preliminarily, we note that the PCRA contains a custodial requirement to be eligible for relief. See Commonwealth v. Turner, 80 A.3d 754, 767 (Pa. 2013) (noting eligibility for relief under the PCRA is limited to those serving a sentence). Under the PCRA, a petitioner must either be " currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, probation or parole for the crime" or " awaiting execution of a sentence of death for the crime" or " serving a sentence which must expire before the person may commence serving the disputed sentence." 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 9543(a)(1)(i)-(iii). Descardes does not meet any of the foregoing three eligibility requirements. He completed his sentence by serving a one-year probationary sentence that expired in 2007. He was obviously not sentenced to death for insurance fraud and was not serving any other sentence that would toll the commencement of the sentence under dispute. He is therefore ineligible for PCRA relief. See Turner, 80 A.3d at 767 (" [O]ur legislature chose not to create any statutory entitlement to collateral review for defendants who have completed their sentences." ).

The trial court, however, found that Descardes is nonetheless eligible for PCRA relief because under Padilla " deportation is not a 'collateral consequence' of a guilty plea, but is in fact part and parcel of the punishment for the original

Page 108

crime, so that a person facing deportation as a result of criminal conviction is still eligible for [PCRA] relief ... despite his original criminal sentence having expired." Trial Court Opinion, 9/24/10, at 2.

We agree that " deportation is a drastic measure" as, " at times," it is the " equivalent of banishment o[r] exile[.]" Fong Haw Tan v. Phelan, 333 U.S. 6, 10, 68 S.Ct. 374, 92 L.Ed. 433 (1948) (citation omitted). See also Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135, 164, 65 S.Ct. 1443, 89 L.Ed. 2103 (1945) (Murphy, J., concurring) (" The impact of deportation upon the life of an alien is often as great if not greater than the imposition of a criminal sentence." ). However, although deportation " is a penalty," id., it " is not, in a strict sense, a criminal sanction," despite its intimate relation to the criminal process. Padilla, 559 U.S. at 365. See also United States v. Restrepo, 999 F.2d 640, 647 (2d Cir. 1993).

Deportation is not a sentence and Descardes is not in custody. Therefore, he is not eligible for PCRA relief. See, e.g., Turner. The PCRA court's reliance upon Padilla for the assertion that deportation constitutes a sentence for purposes of the PCRA eligibility provisions, although understandably sympathetic, is misplaced.

The question remains, however, whether the lower court properly treated Descardes's petition for a writ of coram nobis as a PCRA petition. The PCRA states that it " shall be the sole means of obtaining collateral relief and encompasses all other common law and statutory remedies for the same purpose that exist when this subchapter takes effect, including habeas corpus and coram nobis," 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 9542. The key consideration is whether the underlying claim is cognizable under the PCRA; if so, a petitioner " may only obtain relief under the PCRA." Commonwealth v. Pagan, 2004 PA Super. 483, 864 A.2d 1231, 1233 (Pa. Super. 2004) (emphasis in original). See also Turner, 80 A.3d at 767 (" The PCRA provides eligibility for relief for cognizable claims, ... and is the sole means of obtaining collateral relief in Pennsylvania." ); Commonwealth v. West, 595 Pa. 483, 938 A.2d 1034, 1043 (Pa. 2007) (" [T]he PCRA subsumes all forms of collateral relief ... to the extent a remedy is available under such enactment." ) (emphasis omitted); Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 554 Pa. 547, 722 A.2d 638, 640 (Pa. 1998) (" The writ [of habeas corpus ] continues to exist only in cases in which there is no remedy under the PCRA." ).

It is rare for a claim to fall outside of the ambit of the PCRA. See Commonwealth v. Hackett, 598 Pa. 350, 956 A.2d 978, 986 (Pa. 2008) (referring to claims that " fall outside the PCRA's statutory scheme" as " unique claims" ); Commonwealth v. Burkett, 2010 PA Super. 182, 5 A.3d 1260, 1274 (Pa. Super. 2010) (referring to claims that do " not fit within the statutory scheme of the PCRA" as " rare instances" ). For example, our Supreme Court found that a substantive due process challenge to the validity of recommitting the defendant to prison, after a nine-year delay in which he had mistakenly been free on appeal bond, did not fall within the ambit of the PCRA. See West. The Supreme Court has also held that an allegation that Canada violated the petitioner's rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights was not a cognizable PCRA claim. See Commonwealth v. Judge, 591 Pa. 126, 916 A.2d 511 (Pa. 2007).

In turning to Descardes's claim, it is, in broad terms, one of ineffective assistance of plea counsel, a claim that is explicitly within the purview of the PCRA. See 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 9543(a)(2)(ii). Descardes's exact claim, however, is predicated upon the ...


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