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Commonwealth v. Torres-Kuilan

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 27, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellee
v.
ALEXANDER TORRES-KUILAN Appellant

         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence January 20, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Union County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-60-CR-0000197-2014

          BEFORE: OTT, J., DUBOW, J., and PLATT, J. [*]

          OPINION

          OTT, J.

         Alexander Torres-Kuilan appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed on January 20, 2016, in the Court of Common Pleas of Union County following his conviction by jury on charges of aggravated indecent assault without consent, aggravated indecent assault complainant less than 13 years old, indecent assault of a person less than 13 years old, and indecent assault without consent.[1] Torres-Kuilan received an aggregate sentence of four to ten years' incarceration followed by five years of probation. In this timely appeal, Torres-Kuilan raises two issues. He claims the trial court erred in: (1) conducting a portion of the Section 5985[2]hearing, to determine whether the child victim shall be allowed to testify closed circuit television, outside of his presence, and (2) allowing the child to testify via closed circuit video based upon improperly admitted evidence. Following a thorough review of the submissions by the parties, relevant law, and the certified record, we affirm.

         Torres-Kuilan was accused of molesting a four-year-old child, Torres-Kuilan's niece. The victim was seven years old at the time of trial. Because of her age and circumstances of the crime, there were questions regarding her competency to testify and her ability to testify in open court. The Commonwealth filed a motion in limine seeking to allow the victim to testify via closed circuit television. The trial court deferred ruling on the motion until the time of trial. On the first day of trial, March 25, 2015, the child was called to testify. She was accompanied by Vicki Hackenburg.[3] The child began crying and refused to enter the courtroom. Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 5985 and the Commonwealth's motion, an in camera hearing was held to determine if the child would be allowed to testify other than in open court. The trial court heard testimony from both the child and Hackenburg. Torres-Kuilan was not present for either.

         In his first issue, Torres-Kuilan argues he was improperly kept from being present during Hackenburg's testimony. He maintains that although pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 5985 (a.2)(1) he was not allowed to be present during the child victim's testimony, pursuant to § 5985 (a.2)(2), he was allowed to be present during Hackenburg's testimony. While the statute did give him the right to be present during Hackenburg's testimony, no relevant objection was raised at that time. Because the issue was not preserved with a timely objection, it has been waived. See Commonwealth v. Spell, 28 A.3d 1274, 1280 (Pa. 2011) (failure to raise a timely objection waives issue), and 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).

         In Torres-Kuilan's second issue, he claims the child victim should not have been allowed to testify via closed circuit television in that the trial court improperly relied upon Hackenburg's testimony in making that ruling. This argument is based upon Torres-Kuilan's statutory interpretation of 42 Pa.C.S. § 5985, which states in relevant part:

(a.1) Determination.-- Before the court orders the child victim or the child material witness to testify by a contemporaneous alternative method, the court must determine, based on evidence presented to it, that testifying either in an open forum in the presence and full view of the finder of fact or in the defendant's presence will result in the child victim or child material witness suffering serious emotional distress that would substantially impair the child victim's or child material witness's ability to reasonably communicate. In making this determination, the court may do all of the following:
(1) Observe and question the child victim or child material witness, either inside or outside the courtroom.
(2) Hear testimony of a parent or custodian or any other person, such as a person who has dealt with the child victim or child material witness in a medical or therapeutic setting.

42 Pa.C.S. § 5985(a.1)(2). Our standard of review for questions of statutory interpretation is well-settled:

Statutory interpretation is a question of law, therefore our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary. Commonwealth v. Hall, 622 Pa. 396, 80 A.3d 1204, 1211 (2013). "In all matters involving statutory interpretation, we apply the Statutory Construction Act, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1501 et seq., which provides that the object of interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly." Commonwealth v.

McCoy, 599 Pa. 599, 962 A.2d 1160, 1166 (2009) (citation omitted).

Generally, a statute's plain language provides the best indication of legislative intent. Id. We will only look beyond the plain language of the statute when words are unclear or ambiguous, or the plain meaning would lead to "a result that is absurd, impossible of execution or unreasonable." 1 Pa.C.S. ยง 1922(1). Therefore, when ascertaining the meaning of a statute, if the language ...

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