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Commonwealth v. Tejada

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 26, 2017


         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence October 6, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-31-CR-0000389-2014



          BOWES, J.

         Ricky Tejada appeals from the judgment of sentence of twenty-one to forty-two months of incarceration imposed following his conviction for aggravated harassment by prisoner. We affirm the conviction but vacate the judgment of sentence, and remand for further proceedings.

         The facts are simple. While housed at the state correctional facility on another matter, Appellant spit in the face of a corrections officer who was attempting to remove Appellant from the law library. On January 23, 2015, shortly before trial was to begin, the parties appeared before the court to address Appellant's attire. The prosecutor informed the judge that Appellant wished to appear in his Department of Corrections jumpsuit instead of a suit. N.T., 1/23/15, at 2. The judge advised Appellant that the choice was his and asked what he wished to do, but Appellant failed to respond to the trial judge's inquiry. Id. Thereafter, Appellant's counsel informed the court that Appellant had instructed him to tell the judge that Appellant simultaneously wished to represent himself and that he was incompetent to proceed to trial. Appellant's counsel stated that he had attempted to speak to Appellant in person upon his appointment, but those efforts were fruitless. Id. at 8. Appellant argued with the trial judge, informing him that he had irreconcilable differences with his attorney, and insisted that he did not understand what was happening. When informed the case would proceed to trial, Appellant claimed that counsel was forced upon him and that the court lacked jurisdiction. Id. at 14. The judge informed Appellant that if his behavior continued he would be removed from the courtroom. Id. at 15.

         The trial court then brought in the jury. During opening remarks, Appellant attacked his lawyer.

THE COURT: . . . . Ladies and gentlemen, you and I are about to embark upon the trial of a criminal case brought by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Ricky Tejada.
Mr. Tejada, I want you to keep your voice down. It's appropriate for you to talk to -
THE COURT: Let the record reflect that the defendant has struck his defense attorney. We are going to take a recess and make some determinations.

Id. at 17. Appellant was thereafter removed from the courtroom. Counsel then moved for mistrial and asked to withdraw, both of which were granted.[1]One week later, the judge recused and the matter was reassigned.

         At some point, the court ordered that Appellant was not permitted to attend the retrial. On April 29, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a motion seeking a pre-trial determination of the matter. "The [c]ourt has since [the mistrial] indicated that [Appellant] is not to be brought, in person, to the Huntingdon County Courthouse." Motion, 4/29/15, at 1. The court later issued an order scheduling a hearing.

         On July 1, 2015, five days before jury selection, that hearing was conducted via videoconference link to the state correctional institute where Appellant was housed. The transcript of this proceeding is not in the certified record. The trial court characterized what occurred as follows:

The [c]ourt held a hearing before the second trial in this matter in order to give Appellant the opportunity to rehabilitate himself and demonstrate his ability to conduct himself appropriately in the courtroom. At this hearing, Appellant only continued to
display a disruptive demeanor and inability to allow court proceedings to continue in his presence.

         Trial Court Opinion, 4/22/16, at 3. Appellant does not dispute this assessment. "[T]he trial court accurately labeled his behavior at the pre-trial hearing as disruptive[.]" Appellant's brief at 20-21.

         As a result of Appellant's behavior at this hearing, the court refused to permit Appellant to physically attend jury selection or trial. However, the court arranged for Appellant's attendance at trial via videoconference. The jury found Appellant guilty and he received the aforementioned sentence. He filed post-sentence motions for relief, which were denied by operation by law. Appellant timely appealed and raises the following issues for our review.

I. Whether the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in sentencing Appellant without benefit of Pre-Sentence Investigation?
II. Whether the trial court erred in conducti[ng] Appellant's Jury Selection, Trial, and Sentencing via videoconferencing?

         Appellant's brief at 8.

         We first address Appellant's second issue since an erroneous deprivation of the right to be present warrants a new trial. Commonwealthv. Vega, 719 A.2d 227 (Pa. 1998) (waiver of right to ...

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