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Commonwealth v. Barnes

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 28, 2016


          ARGUED: September 13, 2016

         Appeal from the judgment of Superior Court entered on 6/27/2014 at No. 1784 EDA 2013 affirming the judgment of sentence entered on 11/1/2010 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, at No. CP-51-CR-0005943-2009.



          BAER JUSTICE

         This appeal presents the issue of whether a challenge, on direct appeal, alleging that a mandatory minimum sentence violates Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013) (requiring that any fact that increases a mandatory minimum sentence be deemed an element of an aggravated offense necessitating pre-trial notice to a defendant, the submission of the fact to a factfinder, and the factfinder's conclusion that the fact has been established beyond a reasonable doubt), implicates the "legality" of a sentence for issue preservation purposes, and thus is not waivable. Because we hold that an Alleyne challenge implicates legality of sentence, we address the merits of Appellant's challenge to his sentence despite his failure to preserve it before the trial court or Superior Court. As the Commonwealth concedes, and based on our decisions in Commonwealth v. Hopkins, 117 A.3d 247 (Pa. 2015) and Commonwealth v. Wolfe, 140 A.3d 651 (Pa. 2016), we conclude that Appellant's sentence violates Alleyne. Accordingly, we reverse the Superior Court's decision, vacate Appellant's judgment of sentence, and remand for resentencing.

         The relevant facts of this case are not in dispute. Philadelphia police officers executed a search warrant for a residence where Kareem Barnes ("Appellant") lived with his two younger brothers. The search of one of the bedrooms yielded a firearm, assorted drugs and drug paraphernalia. As a result, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with possession with intent to deliver ("PWID"), [1] possession of a firearm prohibited, [2] and other related charges. Appellant waived his right to a jury trial and proceeded to a bench trial. At trial, Appellant's youngest brother testified that he, not Appellant, occupied the bedroom where the seized items were found and he, not Appellant, owned the contraband. The trial court, however, did not credit the brother's testimony, and instead, found Appellant guilty of the crimes charged. The trial court sentenced Appellant to 5 to 10 years' imprisonment on the PWID conviction, which included a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712.1, based on the trial court's finding that Appellant was in constructive possession of drugs "in close proximity to" a firearm.[3] No further penalty was imposed for the other convictions.

         Appellant filed a notice of appeal, [4] raising two sufficiency of the evidence challenges before the Superior Court which are not at issue here. Specifically, Appellant alleged: 1) there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions for PWID and possession of a firearm because he was not present during the search; and 2) there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that the drugs and gun were found "in close proximity" to each other for purposes of the Section 9712.1 mandatory minimum sentence.

         Four days after Appellant filed his notice of appeal, the United States Supreme Court decided Alleyne, supra. In Alleyne, the Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that any fact increasing a punishment, even if it increases the minimum sentence, must be considered a part of an aggravated offense which a defendant has notice of before trial, and that fact must be found by the finder of fact beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, the High Court struck down as unconstitutional a New Jersey sentencing statute that allowed for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence based on the sentencing court's finding of an additional fact (that was not an element of the crime) by the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence. Despite being filed more than two months after the Supreme Court's pronouncement in Alleyne, Appellant's 1925(b) statement did not raise an Alleyne challenge to his mandatory minimum sentence. Instead, Appellant only raised his two sufficiency claims.

         The Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence, agreeing with the trial court that sufficient evidence existed to support Appellant's convictions and the application of the mandatory minimum sentence under Section 9712.1. Despite the fact that Appellant did not raise an Alleyne challenge to his sentence, the Superior Court concluded, in a footnote, that Appellant's sentence did not violate Alleyne, citing that court's precedent at the time, Commonwealth v. Watley, 81 A.3d 108, 118-21 (Pa. Super. 2013) (en banc) (holding that Section 9712.1's mandatory minimum sentence did not violate Alleyne where the jury contemporaneously convicted the appellant for PWID and possessory firearms charges).[5]

         Appellant sought our review of three issues: 1) his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions; 2) his challenge to the sentencing court's finding that the drugs were "in close proximity" to the firearm; and 3) for the first time, his challenge to his sentence as violating Alleyne. We denied review of Appellant's two sufficiency of the evidence claims, but granted review of his Alleyne issue. Because there is no dispute that Appellant is raising this challenge for the first time before this Court, we also directed the parties to address the threshold issue of whether Appellant's failure to preserve the issue in the lower courts precludes us from granting relief.

         Typically, an appellant waives any claim that is not properly raised in the first instance before the trial court and preserved at every stage of his appeal. Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) ("Issues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal."); Commonwealth v. Tilley, 780 A.2d 649, 652 (Pa. 2001) ("[I]n order for a new rule of law to apply retroactively to a case pending on direct appeal, the issue had to be preserved at all stages of adjudication up to and including the direct appeal.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).[6] However, an exception to the issue-preservation requirement exists where the challenge is one implicating the legality of the appellant's sentence. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Dickson, 918 A.2d 95, 99 (Pa. 2007) ("[A] challenge to the legality of sentence cannot be waived."). Because Appellant did not raise his Alleyne challenge before the trial court or the Superior Court, we may only address the merits of his challenge if we determine that it is one implicating the legality of Appellant's sentence so that it cannot be waived.

         If we determine that an Alleyne challenge is not waivable on direct appeal, then Appellant is entitled to resentencing, as the Commonwealth concedes that our prior decisions interpreting Alleyne render Section 9712.1 unconstitutional on its face. Specifically, in Commonwealth v. Wolfe, we stated that "[t]he effect of Alleyne's new rule was to invalidate a range of Pennsylvania sentencing statutes predicating mandatory minimum penalties upon non-elemental facts and requiring such facts to be determined by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing." 140 A.3d 651, 653 (Pa. 2016) (holding 42 Pa.C.S. § 9718 violated Alleyne because it required imposition of a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for an involuntary deviant sexual assault conviction based on an additional fact (that the victim was less than sixteen years of age) found at sentencing and proven only by a preponderance of the evidence); see also Commonwealth v. Hopkins, 117 A.3d 247 (Pa. 2015) (finding 18 Pa.C.S. § 6317 constitutionally infirm for similar reasons). Section 9712.1, under which Appellant was sentenced, contains the identical constitutional infirmities as the now void provisions at issue in Wolfe and Hopkins. Accordingly, Appellant's sentence violated Alleyne, and our ability to afford relief rises or falls on issue preservation.

         It is important to note that this Court recently wrestled with the issue-preservation doctrine as it relates to challenges to mandatory minimum sentences in Commonwealth v. Foster, 17 A.3d 332 (Pa. 2011) (plurality). Notably, Foster did not involve an Alleyne challenge as presented here; rather, the appellant in Foster presented a Dickson challenge. In Commonwealth v. Dickson, 918 A.2d 95 (Pa. 2007), this Court reviewed the mandatory minimum sentence found at 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712 (requiring at least five years' imprisonment for a person who visibly possesses a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence) and whether it applied to an unarmed co-conspirator. Ultimately, we concluded it was unconstitutional to apply Section 9712's mandatory minimum sentence to an individual who did not possess a firearm.[7] Thus, the mandatory minimum sentencing challenge in Foster, which was pre-Alleyne, was not that the statute was unconstitutional on its face, but instead, unconstitutionally applied to the defendant therein, who was an accomplice to the crime at issue.

         Relevant here, Foster did not present his challenge to the mandatory minimum sentence's application at the time he was sentenced, as Dickson, upon which he relied in presenting his issue, was decided by this Court four months after Foster's sentencing and during the pendency of his direct appeal. As Foster did not properly preserve his challenge at the time of his sentencing, he was only entitled to relief if we determined that his issue was not waived by his failure to raise it in the trial court. The

         Commonwealth argued that Foster's challenge did not implicate legality for issue preservation purposes because he could have received the same sentence under separate, albeit discretionary, authority, which allowed for the sentence imposed as well as a lesser sentence.

         Although this Court was split as to the reasoning, we unanimously agreed that Foster was entitled to relief despite his failure to preserve timely the issue in the trial court, rejecting the Commonwealth's argument that separate statutory authority supporting the sentence precluded relief. The lead opinion in the case, penned by this author and joined by two other Justices, [8] concluded that Foster's Dickson challenge implicated legality of sentence and was thus non-waivable. Foster, 17 A.3d at 345. Specifically, the lead opinion reasoned that "when a sentencing court has no alternative but to impose a [later-determined ...

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