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Commonwealth v. Fields

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 31, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
RUDOLPH FIELDS, Appellee

Argued March 11, 2014

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered April 28, 2011 (reargument denied on 7/6/2011) at No. 3075 EDA 2009 vacating/remanding the Judgment of Sentence entered on August 5, 2005 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Philadelphia County at Nos. CP-51-CR-1102011-2003 and CP-51-CR-1102031-2003. Appeal allowed March 28, 2013 at 472 EAL 2011. Trial Court Judge: Steven R. Geroff, Judge. Intermediate Court Judges: Kate Ford Elliott, President Judge; John L. Musmanno, Judge; Stephen J. McEwen Jr., President Judge Emeritus.

For Defender Association of Philadelphia, AMICUS CURIAE: Peter Rosalsky, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, APPELLANT: Hugh J. Burns Jr., Esq., Priya M. Travassos, Esq., Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

For Rudolph Fields, APPELLEE: Lee Mandell, Esq., Lee Mandell, P.C.

MR. JUSTICE SAYLOR. CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, MCCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. Former Justice McCaffery did not participate in the decision of this case. Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Mr. Justice Eakin, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice Stevens join the opinion. Mr. Justice Baer files a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

Page 739

MR. SAYLOR, JUSTICE

In this appeal by allowance, we consider whether sentences for multiple crimes of violence committed in the same criminal episode are each subject to statutory enhancement, where the sentences are governed by the second-strike provision of Pennsylvania's recidivist sentencing statute.

In 1992, Appellee forced his way into a woman's home and sexually assaulted her. He pled guilty to rape and burglary and was sentenced to four to ten years' imprisonment. Within a month after his release from confinement in 2002, Appellee forced his way into another victim's residence, brutally attacked and raped her, and robbed her of her money and car. The Commonwealth arrested Appellee and charged him with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (" IDSI" ), robbery, burglary, and related offenses.

Appellee entered an open plea of guilty to all charges. A sentencing hearing was conducted on August 5, 2005. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court applied the second-strike offender portion of Pennsylvania's recidivism statute, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714 (relating to sentences for second and subsequent offenses), in view of Appellee's prior convictions for the 1992 offenses.[1] That provision states:

(1) Any person who is convicted in any court of this Commonwealth of a crime of violence shall, if at the time of the commission of the current offense the person had previously been convicted of a crime of violence, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least ten years of total confinement, notwithstanding any other provision of this title or other statute to the contrary. Upon a second conviction for a crime of violence, the court shall give the person oral and written notice of the penalties under this

Page 740

section for a third conviction for a crime of violence. Failure to provide such notice shall not render the offender ineligible to be sentenced under paragraph (2).

42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1). Because Section 9714(g) defines " crime of violence" to include rape, IDSI, robbery, and burglary, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(g), the common pleas court sentenced Appellee to mandatory minimum sentences of 10 to 20 years for each of these four charges.[2]

In an unpublished decision, the Superior court vacated Appellee's judgment of sentence and remanded for resentencing using a single, second-strike ten-year minimum. The court based its decision on this Court's holding in Commonwealth v. McClintic, 589 Pa. 465, 909 A.2d 1241 (2006). In McClintic, a majority of this Court determined that only one of multiple crimes committed by a third-strike offender during a single criminal episode is eligible for the 25-year minimum sentence required by subsection (a)(2).[3] While recognizing that the present case involves a second-strike offender, the intermediate court nonetheless found McClintic controlling, expressing that McClintic's central tenet was that any repeat offender is subject to only a single sentence enhancement for each strike -- where multiple strikes are, by judicial interpretation, sequential and separated by an intervening opportunity for reform. See Commonwealth v. Fields, No. 3075 EDA 2009, slip op. at 11. See generally Commonwealth v. Dickerson, 533 Pa. 294, 299, 621 A.2d 990, 992 (1993) (" In cases of recidivism, we expect the following sequence of events: first offense, first conviction, first sentencing, second offense, second conviction, second sentencing." ); Shiffler, 583 Pa. at 494-95, 879 A.2d at 195.

We granted review to assess whether the mandatory minimum sentence set forth in Section 9714(a)(1) of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1), only applies to one of multiple crimes of violence committed in a single criminal episode by a second-strike offender. See Commonwealth v. Fields, 619 Pa. 398, 64 A.3d 628 (2013) (per curiam). The parties agree that the charges of rape, IDSI, robbery, and burglary arose from a single criminal episode and that these offenses constitute crimes of violence for sentencing purposes. They disagree over whether Section 9714(a)(1) permits multiple 10-to-20 year sentences in such circumstances.

The Commonwealth argues that the plain language of Section 9714(a)(1) supports the common pleas court's decision to apply the ten-year mandatory minimum term for each crime of violence, as that provision lacks any limiting language which would require a court to impose only one such term per criminal episode. Additionally, according to the Commonwealth, the intermediate court erroneously extrapolated from McClintic, which construed a materially different provision. The Commonwealth thus requests that this Court clarify that McClintic's holding only applies to subsection (a)(2). Alternatively, the Commonwealth suggests that McClintic was wrongly decided and asks this Court to disapprove McClintic outright based on the reasoning of the dissenting

Page 741

opinion in that case, which opined that the phrase, " separate criminal transactions" as used in subsection (a)(2) refers to " the enhancing prior offenses" rather than the current offense. Brief for Commonwealth at 16 (emphasis omitted in part); see McClintic, 589 Pa. at 484-85, 909 A.2d at 1253 (Eakin, J., dissenting).

Appellee states that the Superior Court correctly applied McClintic and that he " expressly adopts" that court's rationale. Brief for Appellee at 13.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia, as amicus curiae, advances several arguments in favor of affirmance. First, it claims that the plain text of the statute supports the Superior Court's holding because the mandatory sentence reflected in subsection (a)(1) is phrased in the singular (" a minimum sentence of at least ten years" ). The Defender Association contends that, even if the statute is ambiguous in this respect, it should be construed in favor of the accused under the rule of lenity. See 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(b)(1); Commonwealth v. Booth, 564 Pa. 228, 234, 766 A.2d 843, 846 (2001) (noting that, under the rule of lenity, any doubt about a penal statute's meaning is resolved in favor of the accused). Next, it argues that subsections (a)(1) and (a)(2) should be construed similarly given that they share crucial statutory language, as they both set forth the penalty for a person convicted of a crime of violence. Further, the Defender Association maintains that an offender establishes his status as a recidivist only one time per criminal episode, and hence, only allowing one mandatory minimum sentence per criminal episode is consistent with the recidivist philosophy adopted by the courts in construing Section 9714. Finally, the Defender Association suggests that the interests of justice are better served by a single enhancement for each criminal episode as this would allow more flexibility at sentencing -- e.g., a court could sentence a second-strike offender convicted of two crimes of violence to an aggregate of 15-to-30 years, rather than having to choose between 10-to-20 years or 20-to-40-years.

As explained, the Superior Court relied heavily on McClintic, which addresses the third-strike counterpart to the second-strike provision at issue in this case, and the Commonwealth presently asks us to overrule, or at least limit, that decision to the third-strike context. Thus, we will address the continuing vitality and reach of McClintic before proceeding to further statutory analysis.

As for whether McClintic should be disapproved, we note initially that the question of whether a prior exercise in statutory construction should be overruled is a sensitive one that should only be undertaken when reasonably necessary. Circumspection is particularly warranted in cases involving statutory (as opposed to constitutional) interpretation, " because in the statutory arena the legislative body is free to correct any errant interpretation of its intentions[.]" Hunt v. Pa. State Police, 603 Pa. 156, 174, 983 A.2d 627, 637 (2009) (quoting Shambach v. Bickhart, 577 Pa. 384, 406, 845 A.2d 793, 807 (2004) (Saylor, J. concurring)). Here, it is not necessary to revisit McClintic since, as noted, we are construing a materially different statutory provision. In particular, subsection (a)(2) contains the phrase, " such crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions," which does not appear in subsection (a)(1). This is important because the phrase was critical to the McClintic majority's understanding that (a)(2)'s sentence enhancement applies to only one of the crimes of violence committed by a third-strike offender during a criminal transaction. In this regard, McClintic reasoned as follows:

Page 742

The question we must now address is whether each crime of violence requires its own sentence enhancement. . . . To answer this question, we look to the language of Section 9714(a)(2), which provides that where the person had, at the time of the current offense, i.e., crime of violence, " previously been convicted of two or more such crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions," the sentence enhancement applies. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(2) (emphasis added). Use of the word " such," a demonstrative adjective, refers to an antecedent, or a category of things previously mentioned. The category of things previously mentioned is " current offense," which we have defined as " crime of violence." Use of the word " such" before the clause " crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions" serves to limit the current offense or crimes of violence to which the sentence enhancement applies to those " crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions." Thus, close examination of the specific statutory language, the polestar of all statutory construction, reveals that the legislature intended to apply sentencing enhancements for all crimes arising from a criminal transaction, rather than for each individual crime within such transaction

McClintic, 589 Pa. at 480-81, 909 A.2d at 1250-51 (second emphasis added).

The McClintic Court was sharply divided over the above analysis. This author dissented, as did Mr. Justice Eakin, whose dissenting opinion was joined by former Justice Newman. Nevertheless, the interpretation was endorsed by a majority of the Court. As such, it enjoys precedential status, and we deny the Commonwealth's request that it be overruled. Whether McClintic's reasoning should be seen as extending to subsection (a)(1), however, is a separate question.

As noted, the Superior Court applied McClintic to the present case under a very broad view of McClintic's holding which would pertain to all repeat offenders. Such application of the holding, however, is not required by its underlying reasoning. The reasoning, as can be seen above, centered on the " such crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions" phraseology, which is absent from subsection (a)(1). Thus, we find it most appropriate to resolve this appeal based on the language of subsection (a)(1) instead of simply importing McClintic's single-enhancement rule into the present context. See Pryor v. United States, 278 F.3d 612, 613 n.1 (6th Cir. 2002) (noting that where two different subsections of a statutory provision are involved, the interpretation of one does not control relative to the other), abrogated on other grounds, Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 125 S.Ct. 2478, 162 L.Ed.2d 343 (2005); Commonwealth v. Omar, 602 Pa. 595, 611 n.14, 981 A.2d 179, 189 n.14 (2009) (same as to different statutes); cf. Lance v. Wyeth, Pa., 85 A.3d 434, 453 (2014) (explaining that the holding of a judicial decision is to be read against its facts, a precept that protects against the " unintentional extension of governing principles beyond scenarios to which they rationally relate" (citing, inter alia, Oliver v. City of Pittsburgh, 608 Pa. 386, 395, 11 A.3d 960, 966 (2011))).[4] Accordingly, we now turn to a consideration of subsection (a)(1)'s text.

Page 743

Initially, certain longstanding principles apply to any inquiry into a statute's meaning. The overall objective of the inquiry, of course, is to ascertain and effectuate legislative intent. See 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a). In ascertaining such intent, words that are clear and free of ambiguity may not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the law's " spirit." Id. § 1921(b). In this regard, although penal provisions are strictly construed, see id. § 1928(b)(1), the straightforward meaning of such provisions should be adhered to absent an ambiguity. See Commonwealth v. Kimmel, 523 Pa. 107, 111, 565 A.2d 426, 427 (1989); see also 1 Pa.C.S. § 1903(a) (stating that, unless statutory words and phrases have acquired a technical meaning, they " shall be construed according to . . . their common and approved usage" ); cf. 18 Pa.C.S. § 105 (indicating that the provisions of the Crimes Code should ordinarily " be construed according to the fair import of their terms" ).

In light of the above, a central issue is whether subsection (a)(1) is materially ambiguous. The subsection is set forth in full in the text above. In material part, it states that " [a]ny person who is convicted . . . of a crime of violence shall, if at the time of the commission of the current offense the person had previously been convicted of a crime of violence, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least ten years[.]" 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1). The Defender Association attempts to cast this language as either clearly supporting only a single sentence enhancement, or, at a minimum, reflecting an ambiguity requiring resort to the rule of lenity. The textual support for such contention is primarily found in the singular phrase, " a minimum sentence of at least ten years."

We do not agree that the singular nature of this phrase either reflects a legislative intention that only one of a series of crimes in a criminal episode be subject to the mandatory minimum sentence, or is sufficient to create a genuine ambiguity. First, giving determinative weight to the singular nature of the word " a" would be in tension with the Statutory Construction Act. See 1 Pa.C.S. § 1902 ( " The singular shall include the plural, and the plural, the singular." ). Additionally, a straightforward reading of the statutory text reveals that the sentence enhancement is required so long as the defendant meets two prerequisites: he previously committed a crime of violence, and his current offense is a crime of violence. Appellee independently satisfied both of these prerequisites as to all four crimes of violence he committed in 2002, and therefore, subsection (a)(1) requires that " a minimum sentence" be imposed upon him as to each. Unlike subsection (a)(2), moreover, subsection (a)(1) does not contain any separate limiting language that may be read to preclude such an outcome.

Finally, it seems likely that, if the General Assembly had intended the particularized result urged by Appellee -- whereby, if a second-strike offender commits several crimes of violence in a single criminal episode, the sentencing enhancement applies to only one such crime and ordinary sentencing applies to the others -- it would have made its intentions known via language

Page 744

directed to that circumstance. The General Assembly is certainly aware that a defendant may be sentenced for multiple crimes simultaneously. In the context of mandatory minimum sentencing, moreover, it has, on at least one occasion, acted to impose limitations upon multiple sentences where it favors such limitations. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712.1(b) (with regard to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses committed with a firearm, specifying that an aggregate sentence may not exceed the statutory maximum under the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act). That the Legislature did not include in Section 9714 any restrictive language relative to multiple second-strike sentences therefore supports our conclusion that an enhancement is required under that provision for each crime of violence committed as part of the offender's second strike.

Nor is our reading of subsection (a)(1) in substantial conflict with the recidivist-philosophy overlay that has been judicially superimposed onto Section 9714(a). Pursuant to that overlay, progressively harsher punishments are appropriate to one who, after being reproved and having a chance for reform, continues to engage in criminal activity. See Shiffler, 583 Pa. at 494-95, 879 A.2d at 195; Dickerson, 533 Pa. at 299, 621 A.2d at 992; Commonwealth v. Williams, 539 Pa. 249, 252, 652 A.2d 283, 284-85 (1994); see also Commonwealth v. Bradley, 575 Pa. 141, 157-58, 834 A.2d 1127, 1136 (2003) (Saylor, J., concurring). Reform opportunities, in this setting, are periods where the defendant serves a term of confinement and is then released. See McClintic, 589 Pa. at 483, 909 A.2d at 1252; Dickerson, 533 Pa. at 299, 621 A.2d at 992. The recidivist-philosophy thus clarifies how many strikes are represented by the defendant's criminal history, but it does not directly address the prospect of multiple sentencing enhancements at a particular level for more than one crime of violence committed as part of a single strike.[5] Although the McClintic majority found that cases applying the judicial overlay were helpful in informing the Court's reasoning in the subsection (a)(2) context, see McClintic, 589 Pa. at 478, 909 A.2d at 1249, it would be overly attenuated to employ the recidivist philosophy to avoid the purport of Section 9714(a)(1) as developed above. See generally Williams, 539 Pa. at 252, 652 A.2d at 285 (" [T]he 'recidivist philosophy' possesses no authority which would override clearly contrary statutory language." ).[6]

Accordingly, we hold that Section 9714(a)(1) of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1), requires that a second-strike offender be sentenced to the prescribed minimum term of incarceration for each conviction of a crime of violence that is part of the second strike. Because this is what the common pleas court did, the

Page 745

Superior Court's order is reversed and the matter is remanded for reinstatement of Appellee's judgment of sentence.

Former Justice McCaffery did not participate in the decision of this case.

Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Mr. Justice Eakin, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice Stevens join the opinion.

DISSENTING OPINION

MR. BAER, JUSTICE

As recounted by the Majority, Rudolph Fields (Appellee) committed four crimes of violence in a single criminal episode in 2002, ten years after pleading guilty to two other crimes of violence in 1992. The trial court considered Appellee to be a second-strike offender four times over, pursuant to the second-strike offender portion of the recidivism statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1), which provides:

(1) Any person who is convicted in any court of this Commonwealth of a crime of violence shall, if at the time of the commission of the current offense the person had previously been convicted of a crime of violence, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least ten years of total confinement, notwithstanding any other provision of this title or other statute to the contrary. Upon a second conviction for a crime of violence, the court shall give the person oral and written notice of the penalties under this section for a third conviction for a crime of violence. Failure to provide such notice shall not render the offender ineligible to be sentenced under paragraph (2).

42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1).

The trial court, accordingly, sentenced Appellee to four consecutive second-strike mandatory minimum sentences of ten to twenty years of incarceration for each of the four crimes of violence (40 to 80 years in the aggregate), in addition to consecutive terms of incarceration for related offenses, resulting in a total sentence of confinement of 45 1/2 to 91 years. The Superior Court reversed, relying on our decision in Commonwealth v. McClintic, 589 Pa. 465, 909 A.2d 1241 (Pa. 2006) (interpreting the third-strike counterpart of the recidivism statute to permit only one of multiple crimes committed by a third-strike offender during a single criminal episode to warrant the mandatory minimum sentence required by Section 9714(a)(2)).[1] The Superior Court considered McClintic controlling and held that Appellee was subject to a single second-strike sentence enhancement for multiple crimes of violence committed during the criminal episode. The Majority reverses the Superior Court, holding that the distinct language of Section 9714(a)(1) removes this case from the reach of McClintic, and permits multiple second-strike enhancements for each crime of violence. Because I believe the Superior Court properly interpreted the relevant statutory language of Section 9714(a)(1) consistently with the recidivism philosophy

Page 746

as articulated in McClintic, I respectfully dissent.

In McClintic, the appellant was convicted of two crimes of violence arising out of the same incident and, due to two prior convictions for crimes of violence, qualified as a " three-strikes offender." The trial court sentenced him to two consecutive third-strike sentences. This Court reversed, addressing whether it was permissible for the trial court to impose two separate sentence enhancements for two crimes that the appellant committed during the same criminal episode. We emphasized the recidivist philosophy underlying Section 9714(a)(2), and held that the trial court committed error in sentencing the appellant to two sentence enhancements. Relying on Commonwealth v. Dickerson, 533 Pa. 294, 621 A.2d 990 (Pa. 1993) and Commonwealth v. Shiffler, 583 Pa. 478, 879 A.2d 185 (Pa. 2005), we held that Section 9714(a)(2) required the sentence enhancement only where a repeat offender's convictions for crimes of violence are sequential and each is separated by an opportunity to reform. McClintic, 909 A.2d at 1251. Determining that the sentence enhancement applied just once to all crimes committed during a single incident, we held that " each strike that serves as a predicate offense must be followed by sentencing and, by necessary implication, an opportunity to reform, before the offender commits the next strike." Id. at 1252. Because the appellant's two crimes of violence for which the trial court had imposed third-strike minimum sentences were committed during the same criminal transaction, without sequential convictions, sentences, and opportunities to reform, we held that the sentence did not comport with the recidivist philosophy.

Appellee in this case received four second-strike sentences for offenses committed in the same criminal episode, which I believe to be directly contrary to our reasoning in McClintic. Although the Majority offers a textual analysis of the distinct provision applicable to second-strike offenders, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1), to distinguish McClintic and limit it to Section 9714(a)(2), I am not persuaded that there is a material distinction in the two subsections sufficient to warrant inconsistent interpretations for the reasons expressed by the Superior Court and argued by the Defender Association of Philadelphia as amicus, as described in the Majority Opinion.

Although there is additional language in the third-strike provision that is not present in the second-strike provision (" [w]here the person had at the time of the commission of the current offense previously been convicted of two or more such crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions. . ." (emphasis added)), each subsection establishes the penalty for a person convicted of a current crime of violence based on a previous conviction of a crime of violence, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(1), or previous convictions for two or more crimes of violence arising from separate criminal transactions, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(a)(2). There is no material distinction in this statutory language relevant to the predicate offense or offenses.

In addition, Section 9714(a)(1) contains language which indicates that the legislature intended this section also to reflect the recidivist philosophy that guided this Court in McClintic. This provision requires that the court provide " second-strike offenders" with a warning of the consequences of a third strike, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years of total confinement. The Majority's construction of Section 9714(a)(1) requires a trial court to impose multiple mandatory minimum sentences, outside of the trial court's discretion and therefore without

Page 747

explanation or justification tied to specific circumstances, which, if imposed consecutively, would exceed the sentence applicable to a third-strike offender, whenever a district attorney has charged, and the defendant has been convicted, of multiple overlapping crimes of violence arising in a single criminal episode. Having interpreted Section 9714(a)(2) to require a single sentence enhancement per criminal episode, and having noted specific statutory language in support of that interpretation, I am not persuaded that we should interpret these sections differently. The recidivist philosophy that animated McClintic was held to permit one enhancement per criminal episode; a result that should apply equally to second as well as third-strike offenders.

I acknowledge that Appellee's criminal episode included horrific crimes and that the trial court herein, which imposed consecutive minimum terms for each of Appellee's crimes of violence committed during the 2002 criminal episode, explained in its opinion that the sentence was within the statutory maximum and that it would have imposed the same sentence regardless of the enhancements in Section 9714(a)(1). Applying a single mandatory sentence enhancement to all crimes of violence committed in the single incident would maintain the recidivist philosophy we have consistently applied when interpreting the sentence enhancements contained in the recidivist sentencing statute while continuing to permit the trial court, within its discretion, to impose the precise sentence Appellee received. I would have no objection to that given the underlying facts.


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