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Commonwealth v. Treece

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 5, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellee
v.
ROBERT WILLIAM TREECE Appellant

         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence March 30, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Greene County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-30-CR-0000270-2014

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

          OPINION

          LAZARUS, J.

         Robert William Treece appeals from the judgment of sentence, entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Greene County, following his conviction for escape.[1] Upon review, we vacate the judgment of sentence.

         The trial court summarized the relevant facts of this matter as follows:

On June [17], 2015, [Robert Treece] was arrested for violating a [p]rotection from [a]buse order and taken to the Cumberland Township Police Department. At the time of his arrest, [Treece] complained of feeling ill. EMS took [Treece] to the local hospital cuffed to the gurney.
After being seen in the emergency room, [Treece] was admitted to the hospital for medical treatment and remained under guard of the Cumberland Township Police in handcuffs. Sometime afterwards, the [p]olice [o]fficers removed the handcuffs and left the examination room [and hospital entirely].
Sometime after 3:00 pm, [Treece], with no law enforcement present, decided he wanted to return home and with the assistance of a nurse, removed his IV and walked out of the hospital.
On June [20], 2014, Cumberland Township Police took [Treece] into custody on an unrelated matter and on June [30], 2014[, ] filed charges against [Treece] for [e]scape [for leaving the hospital].[2] Trial Court Opinion, April 4, 2016, at 1-2.

         A jury trial was held, and on December 4, 2014, Treece was found guilty of escape. The trial judge, the Honorable William R. Nalitz, P.J., retired on December 31, 2014. The Honorable Farley Toothman, P.J., sentenced Treece on March 30, 2015, to 111/2 to 23 months' incarceration in the county jail, to be served concurrently with his other unrelated sentences. Treece filed a timely post-sentence motion seeking a judgment of acquittal, and on December 2, 2015, that motion was denied.

         On January 4, 2016, Treece filed a timely notice of appeal. The sentencing court ordered him to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), which Treece filed on February 2, 2016. On appeal, Treece raises the following issue for our review:

Whether a person[, ] who is arrested and taken to a hospital for treatment in handcuffs, then uncuffed when the police leave the hospital, and [has] no [outstanding] warrant of arrest for a crime or for an involuntary mental health commitment, after observation and assessment for at least two hours, walks out of the hospital, unguarded by anyone, is [] in "official detention" as an element [of] the crime of escape under 18 [Pa.C.S.] § 5121(a)?

         Brief for Appellant, at 10.

In considering sufficiency of the evidence claims,
we must determine whether the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, support the conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . Where there is sufficient evidence to enable the trier of fact to find every element of the crime has been established beyond a reasonable doubt, the sufficiency of the evidence claim must fail. Of course, the evidence established at trial need not preclude every possibility of innocence and the fact-finder is free to believe all, part or none of the evidence presented.

Commonwealth v. Watley, 81 A.3d 108, 113 (Pa. Super. 2013) (en banc). The Commonwealth can satisfy its burden via wholly circumstantial evidence. Id.

         Treece challenges the sufficiency of the evidence for his conviction for escape. Specifically, Treece asserts that the evidence presented by the

         Commonwealth was insufficient to demonstrate that he was in "official detention" when he walked out of the hospital at least one hour after the police officers removed his handcuffs and left the premises.[3]

         A person commits the offense of escape when he "unlawfully removes himself from official detention or fails to return to official detention following temporary leave granted for a specific purpose or limited period." 18 Pa.C.S. § 5121(a). "official detention" is defined as:

arrest, detention in any facility for custody of persons under charge or conviction of crime or alleged or found to be delinquent, detention for extradition or deportation, or any other detention for law enforcement purposes; but the phrase does not include supervision of probation or parole, or constraint incidental to release on bail.

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5121(e).

         It is evident that Treece had been removed from the police station and transported to the hospital, and he was no longer in a "facility for custody of persons." Id. Furthermore, police removed Treece's handcuffs and left the hospital; accordingly, Treece was no longer in police custody. "Therefore, the question is whether the phrase =any other detention for law enforcement purposes' applies to the facts of this case." Commonwealth v. Santana, 959 A.2d 450, 452 (Pa. Super. 2008). "Previously, we have interpreted this phrase to mean a seizure in which =the police have restrained the liberty of a person by show of authority or physical force.'" Id. (quoting Commonwealth v. Stewart, 648 A.2d 797, 798 (Pa. Super. 1994)). "Any determination as to whether a seizure occurred is based upon the totality of circumstances and =whether a reasonable person would have believed he or she was free to leave.'" Santana, 959 A.2d at 452 (quoting Stewart, 648 A.2d at 798).

         In Stewart, police responded to a domestic disturbance complaint alleging that the defendant was carrying a firearm. Upon arriving at the scene, the officer began approaching the defendant's vehicle with his gun drawn, ordering the defendant to put his hands on the dashboard of his vehicle. The defendant immediately drove off, was apprehended a short while later, and charged with escape. In affirming the guilty verdict of the trial court, this Court explained:

Under the circumstances presented in this case, it is clear that [the officer] exhibited a show of authority. It is inconceivable that a reasonable person would believe he or she is free to leave when a uniformed officer with a gun drawn has requested that person to turn the car off and to place his or her hands on the dashboard. We conclude, therefore, that [the officer's] show of authority was sufficient to place [defendant] in official detention as described in 18 Pa.C.S.A. ยง 5121. [Defendant's] decision to drive off in his car ...

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