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Commonwealth v. Sitler

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 21, 2015

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
ROBERT N. SITLER, Appellee

Appeal from the Order of November 1, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County Criminal Division at No.: CP-46-CR-0000389-2013

BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., WECHT, J., and STRASSBURGER, J.[*]

OPINION

STRASSBURGER, J.

This case comes before us on the Commonwealth's interlocutory appeal. Robert Sitler was charged with multiple vehicular and criminal offenses following a traffic accident that he caused. Before trial, Sitler filed a motion in limine seeking to preclude the Commonwealth from introducing, inter alia, evidence of false statements that Sitler had made to the police during the investigation, evidence of Sitler's prior homicide by vehicle conviction, and evidence of Sitler's consumption of alcohol before the accident. On November 1, 2013, the trial court granted Sitler's motion. Certifying that the trial court's order substantially handicapped the prosecution, [1] the Commonwealth appealed the court's order. Upon review, we vacate the order in part and affirm the order in part.

Because this case has not yet been tried, and because the case has not yet been presented to the fact-finder, the following is a summary of the facts underlying Sitler's charges that we derive from the certified record and from Sitler's preliminary hearing.

On November 12, 2012, Regina Qawasmy was returning to her home from work at approximately 9:00 p.m. on High Street in Lower Pottsgrove Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. While traveling on High Street, Qawasmy noticed a pick-up truck driving very close to her rear bumper. Qawasmy repeatedly applied her brakes in an effort to get the truck to back away from her vehicle, to no avail. Soon thereafter, Qawasmy activated her turn signal to inform the trailing pick-up that she was going to turn right onto Sunnyside Road. The driver of the truck immediately revved the engine, and accelerated to the left around Qawasmy's turning vehicle.

When the truck sped around Qawasmy, it struck and killed a sixteen-year-old boy who was standing in the center lane of the roadway. After the collision, both Qawasmy and the pick-up truck pulled over to the side of the road and parked the vehicles.

Officer Matthew Meitzler of the Lower Pottsgrove Police Department was dispatched to the scene of the accident. When Officer Meitzler arrived at the scene, he located the victim lying against a curb, bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ear. Initially, Officer Meitzler detected a faint pulse. He and an EMT who had arrived on the scene began to perform CPR on the victim until an ambulance arrived and transported the victim to the hospital. The victim died that night at the hospital.

While Officer Meitzler was attending to the victim, Sitler's girlfriend, Denise Dinnocenti, stated that she was the driver of the pick-up truck. Officer Meitzler was directed to escort Dinnocenti to a local hospital to have her blood drawn to ascertain whether she was operating the truck under the influence of alcohol. Officer Meitzler did not take Sitler or anyone else to the hospital for a blood draw.

Officer Meitzler took two written statements from Sitler, one on the night of the accident (November 12, 2012), and one on November 17, 2012. In his initial statement, Sitler claimed that Dinnocenti was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident, and that he was positioned in the front passenger seat at all relevant times. Sitler informed the police that, while he and Dinnocenti were travelling behind the van, Qawasmy abruptly activated her turn signal and quickly began to make the turn. This swift action forced Dinnocenti immediately to veer into the center lane to avoid hitting Qawasmy's van, thereby striking the victim crossing the road.

Dinnocenti had provided the police a written statement on the night in question that conformed to the version of events provided by Sitler in his first statement. However, upon reviewing the Sitler and Dinnocenti statements a few days after the accident, Officer Meitzler began to notice some material inconsistencies. He decided to re-interview both individuals. In her second interview, Dinnocenti admitted that she was not the driver of the pick-up truck. Dinnocenti told Officer Meitzler that Sitler was the driver, and that she had admitted to being the driver due to Sitler's criminal history and her fear that he would face severe consequences if he was arrested. She also told Officer Meitzler that Sitler had consumed a few alcoholic beverages prior to driving the truck.

When Officer Meitzler re-interviewed Sitler, Sitler conceded that he was driving the pick-up truck on the date in question. Sitler acknowledged that he had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter in Alabama in 2004, after he had struck and killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. Sitler had served a significant sentence for that crime, and he feared that, if he were charged and convicted of a crime for the instant accident, he would be severely punished. Thus, he instructed Dinnocenti and her children (who also were in the car at the time of the accident) to lie to the authorities about who was driving the vehicle. Sitler also admitted to drinking three beers before driving the pick-up.

Detective David Schanes, an agent of the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, testified as an expert in the field of accident reconstruction. Detective Schanes was called to the scene of the accident on November 12, 2012, and spoke with Sitler. During the conversation, Detective Schanes noticed that Sitler's body emitted an odor of alcoholic beverages. Sitler admitted to Detective Schanes that he had consumed a few alcoholic drinks, but adamantly denied that Dinnocenti had been drinking.

Detective Schanes then investigated the accident. After doing so, he opined that the victim's body came to rest 182 feet from the impact location. Based upon that information, Detective Schanes determined that the pick-up truck was travelling at least fifty miles per hour at the time of impact, which is fifteen miles per hour more than the posted speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour on High Street. With the assistance of a mechanic, Detective Schanes also determined that there were no mechanical problems with the pick-up truck that could have contributed to the accident. Detective Schanes concluded that the tailgating and the speed of the pick-up truck coincided to cause the accident. Finally, Detective Schanes determined that Sitler owned and insured the pick-up truck that struck and killed the victim.

Detective Schanes also spoke with an agent of the company that insured Sitler's truck. The insurance agent indicated to Detective Schanes that Sitler had reported the accident, and that he informed the agent that Dinnocenti was driving the pick-up at the time of the accident. As noted, this assertion was untrue.

Sitler was arrested and, on December 10, 2012, was charged by criminal complaint with a litany of crimes, including homicide by vehicle, insurance fraud, false reports, unsworn falsifications, criminal conspiracy, and a variety of violations of the Motor Vehicle Code. Sitler filed a pre-trial motion seeking to sever the crimes arising from the Crimes Code, i.e., the insurance fraud, false reports, unsworn falsifications, and criminal conspiracy, from the trial on the homicide by vehicle and Motor Vehicle Code violations. The trial court denied the motion.

Sitler filed pre-trial motions in limine, all of which were heard by the trial court on October 31 and November 1, 2013. The issues included, inter alia, the preclusion of evidence related to Sitler's alcohol consumption, preclusion of evidence about Sitler's prior homicide by vehicle conviction in Alabama, and preclusion of evidence about false statements made to police and the insurance company about the accident at issue.

On November 1, 2013, the trial court granted Sitler's motions in limine, in relevant part, holding that the Commonwealth was precluded from introducing testimony or evidence about Sitler's consumption of alcohol, his homicide by vehicle conviction in Alabama, and his false statements. On November 4, 2013, the Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal, wherein the Commonwealth certified that the trial court's November 1, 2013 order substantially handicapped its prosecution pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 311(d). In response, the trial court directed the Commonwealth to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). On November 27, 2013, the Commonwealth timely filed a concise statement. On April 30, 2014, the trial court issued an opinion pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a).

The Commonwealth presents the following three issues for our review:

1. Whether the lower court abused its discretion in concluding that [Sitler's] false statements were not admissible as evidence of consciousness of guilt of reckless driving, where it imposed an additional admissibility requirement contrary to law and, in doing so, impinged on the jury's fact-finding responsibilities?
2. Whether the lower court abused its discretion by not admitting [Sitler's] prior conviction for vehicular manslaughter to prove his knowledge, where the court based its holding on unsupported findings contrary to the record ...

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