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Commonwealth v. Williams

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

January 12, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
LEROY DEPREE WILLIAMS, Appellee

         Appeal from the Order March 17, 2016, in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-25-CR-0003213-2015

          BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., SHOGAN, and STRASSBURGER, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

          STRASSBURGER, J.

         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from an order that precluded the Commonwealth from introducing at trial any testimony describing the content of lost surveillance video footage relating to the break-in of a pizza shop, for which the Commonwealth charged Leroy Depree Williams (Appellee) with various offenses.[1] Upon review, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         The trial court set forth the background underlying this matter as follows.

On September 20, 2015, [Appellee] was charged with burglary, criminal trespass, and criminal mischief for allegedly breaking the front window of Empire Pizza, crawling in and smashing the register before fleeing empty-handed. No one was present at the time, but the business was equipped with video cameras that captured the break-in, including footage of the perpetrator.
Shortly after the break[-]in, the police and Amar [Jasarevic (Jasarevic)[2], the proprietor of Empire Pizza, arrived at the shop and watched the surveillance video. Based on what he saw, Officer Sweeney believed [Appellee] was responsible for the break[-]in. Officer Sweeney asked … Jasarevic to make a copy of the video for the police and left to pursue [Appellee].
When … Jasarevic attempted to make a copy of the video, the original footage of the burglary was lost such that no copies could be made. As a result, [Appellee] is precluded from seeing the video that Officer Sweeney and … Jasarevic viewed before the footage was lost. This information was subsequently provided to [Appellee].
On January 20, 2016, [Appellee] filed [a motion to dismiss the charges against him based upon (1) a violation of the best evidence rule, [3] and (2) the spoliation of evidence resulting in prejudice against him.] An evidentiary hearing was held on [Appellee's] motion on February 26, 2016 during which the Commonwealth adduced the testimony of Officer Sweeney and … Jasarevic.

Trial Court Opinion (TCO), 3/17/2016, at 1-2 (unnecessary capitalization omitted).

          Following the hearing, the trial court issued an order and accompanying opinion concluding that there was no violation of the best evidence rule "because the proponent of the evidence was not acting in bad faith when the original video footage was lost." Id. at 2-3. Nevertheless, the trial court concluded that the video evidence "could … be materially exculpatory" and that, because Appellee had been permanently deprived of the opportunity to view the video, allowing testimony of its content would result in a fundamentally unfair trial. Id. at 3-4. Thus, the trial court suppressed any testimony regarding the content of the video. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, the Commonwealth presents one issue for our consideration: "Whether the lower court erred as a matter of law or abused its discretion by finding that any testimony regarding the content of the surveillance video must be suppressed." Commonwealth's Brief at 3.

         We begin with our well-settled standard of review.

When the Commonwealth appeals from a suppression order, we follow a clearly defined standard of review and consider only the evidence from the defendant's witnesses together with the evidence of the prosecution that, when read in the context of the entire record, remains uncontradicted. The suppression court's findings of fact bind an appellate court if the record supports those findings. The suppression court's conclusions of law, however, are not binding ...

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