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Commonwealth v. Rich

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 17, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
STEVEN VAN SMITH S. RICH, Appellee

         Appeal from the Order Entered May 20, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-21-CR-0003120-2015

          BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., SHOGAN and OTT, JJ.

          OPINION.

          SHOGAN, J.

         This case arose out of an automobile accident involving Appellee, Steven Van Smith S. Rich, in Cumberland County on May 23, 2015. The accident resulted in the death of a bystander, who came to the aid of the accident victims and was killed when struck by a passing tractor-trailer. Appellant, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ("Commonwealth"), has appealed from a pretrial order excluding evidence. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         The trial court summarized the facts of the case, [1] as follows:

Around midnight on May 23, 2015, [Appellee] was driving on State Route 114, a multi-lane divided road. Driving at some speed, he failed to stop at a red light and struck the rear of a vehicle driven by Ms. Mary Hudson as she made a left turn through the intersection. Ms. Hudson's vehicle spun around and came to rest against the curb on the side of the road closest to where she had begun her left-hand turn. [Appellee] continued driving, eventually coming to rest some distance away from where he had struck Ms. Hudson's vehicle. Another driver pulled up behind Ms. Hudson's vehicle and activated her emergency flashers to increase the visibility of Ms. Hudson's car. Within two to three minutes after the impact, a third party, . . . Mr. Adam Webb, crossed the highway on foot, coming from the parking lot of the Pizza Hut on the opposite side of the highway. Mr. Webb came over to where Ms. Hudson stood on the side of the road near her vehicle and spoke with her as she was on the phone with 911. After briefly speaking to her, Mr. Webb then stepped back into the roadway, apparently moving towards where he believed [Appellee's] car had come to rest. Almost immediately, Mr. Webb was struck by an oncoming tractor trailer.16 He was pronounced dead at the scene. Ms. Hudson was mobile at the scene and waved off EMS care, but sought medical treatment several days later for stiffness, soreness, bruising, pain, and anxiety.
16 N.T. at 37. The truck driver was not charged in relation to the incident. N.T. at 40-44.
[Appellee] was subsequently charged with one count each of the following: 1) DUI-General Impairment, 2) DUI-General Impairment with Refusal to Submit to Blood Alcohol Test, 3) DUI-General Impairment with Accident Involving Death or Personal[] Injury, 4) Accidents Involving Death or Personal Injury, 5) Failure to Stop and Give Information and Render Aid, 6) Failure to Notify Police of an Accident Involving Damage, 7) Careless Driving, 8) Failure to Stop at a Traffic Control Signal, 9) Disregarding a Traffic Lane (Single), and 10) Recklessly Endangering Another Person ["REAP"].[2] Counts 5-9 are summary offense[s], carrying fines of $25 each. Counts 1-3, the general DUI charges, carry a maximum [penalty of] six months imprisonment and therefore were set for non-jury trial. The remaining two charges were set for jury trial; Count [4], Accidents Involving Death or Personal Injury, which was charged as a misdemeanor in the first degree, and Count 10, [REAP], which was charged as a misdemeanor in the second degree. [Appellee] waived his pre-trial conference.

         Trial Court Opinion, 8/16/16, at 2-4 (multiple footnotes omitted).

The trial court summarized the procedural history as follows:
Trial was scheduled for May 16, 2016, with counts 1-3 and the summary offenses to be decided by non-jury trial and counts 4 and 10 to be decided by criminal jury trial. On May 16, 2016, [Appellee] filed a Motion in Limine to exclude certain evidence. This [c]ourt held a hearing on the Motion on May 16 and 17, 2016.[3] On May 17, 2016, after a hearing upon [Appellee's] Motion in Limine and Commonwealth's Motion to Amend the Information, this [c]ourt issued an order partially granting and partially denying the Motion in Limine and denying the Motion to Amend the Information.

Trial Court Opinion, 8/16/16, at 1-2 (multiple footnotes omitted).

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ruled that the Commonwealth: could present evidence to the jury that Appellee was driving while intoxicated; could not present evidence to the jury of Appellee's refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test; and could not present evidence of the death of Mr. Webb. The trial court also denied the Commonwealth's Motion to Amend the Information to include a higher grading of the offense of Accidents Involving Death or Personal Injury. Trial Court Opinion, 8/16/16, at 6; Order, 5/20/16. The Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal from the court's interlocutory order.[4] Both the Commonwealth and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

         The two issues asserted in the Commonwealth's Rule 1925(b) statement are the same issues raised on appeal, as follows:

I. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting [Appellee's] motion to exclude evidence of his refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test when such a refusal may be considered as consciousness of guilt of DUI and, in turn, evidence of DUI may be considered as consciousness of guilt for Recklessly Endangering Another Person?
II. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in a [sic] Accidents Involving Death or Personal Injury and Recklessly Endangering Another Person case when the court excluded evidence of the death of Victim Webb, who was attempting to assist Victim Hudson, the woman that [Appellee] crashed into while DUI and fled the crash scene from, regardless of the grading of the Accidents offense and fact that the Criminal Information does not specific [sic] the name of the Victims?

Commonwealth's Brief at 8.

         The standards by which we review this case are settled. "A motion in limine is a procedure for obtaining a ruling on the admissibility of evidence prior to or during trial, but before the evidence has been offered." Commonwealth v. Freidl, 834 A.2d 638, 641 (Pa. Super. 2003) (citation omitted). "In evaluating the denial or grant of a motion in limine, our standard of review is the same as that utilized to analyze an evidentiary challenge." Commonwealth v. Hicks, 151 A.3d 216, 224 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citing Commonwealth v. Pugh, 101 A.3d 820, 822 (Pa. Super. 2014)).

"The admission of evidence is solely within the discretion of the trial court, and a trial court's evidentiary rulings will be reversed on appeal only upon an abuse of that discretion." Commonwealth v. Reid, 627 Pa. 151, 99 A.3d 470, 493 (2014). An abuse of discretion will not be found based on a mere error of judgment, but rather occurs where the court has reached a conclusion that overrides or misapplies the law, or where the judgment exercised is manifestly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill-will. Commonwealth v. Davido, ___ Pa.___, 106 A.3d 611, 645 (2014).

Commonwealth v. Woodard, 129 A.3d 480, 494 (Pa. 2015), cert. denied sub nom. Woodard v. Pennsylvania, 137 S.Ct. 92 (2016). "The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. Pa.R.E. 403." Hicks, 151 A.3d at 224.

         Initially, we are compelled to address the trial court's assertion that this interlocutory appeal is improper. The trial court averred in its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion that "the Commonwealth's case will not be terminated or substantially handicapped by this [c]ourt's [o]rder dated May 20, 2016[, ] and therefore the Commonwealth's interlocutory appeal is improper." Trial Court Opinion, 8/16/16, at 7.

         As noted supra, the Commonwealth may appeal an interlocutory order suppressing evidence when it provides a certification that the order terminates or substantially handicaps the prosecution. Pa.R.A.P. 311(d). Furthermore:

"[t]he Commonwealth's certification that its prosecution is substantially handicapped is 'not contestable.' The certification, 'in and of itself, precipitates and authorizes the appeal.'" Commonwealth v. Apollo, 412 Pa. Super. 453, 456, 603 A.2d 1023, 1025 (1992), appeal denied, 531 Pa. 650, 613 A.2d 556 (1992), quoting Commonwealth v. Dugger, 506 Pa. 537, 545, 486 A.2d 382, 386 (1985).

Commonwealth v. Surina, 652 A.2d 400, 402 (Pa. Super. 1995). Thus, we are not permitted to inquire into the Commonwealth's good-faith certification, and we reject the trial court's contention that this appeal is improper. See Commonwealth v. Belani, 101 A.3d 1156, 1157 n.1 (Pa. Super. 2014) (appellate court is not permitted to inquire into the Commonwealth's good-faith certification); see also Commonwealth v.Moser, 999 A.2d 602, 605 n.2 (Pa. Super. 2010) ("Both the trial court and [the a]ppellee have requested that this Court inquire into the Commonwealth's good-faith certification; however, we are not permitted to conduct such an inquiry") (citing Commonwealth v. White, 91 ...


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