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Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 20, 2017


          ARGUED: November 2, 2016

         Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered 1/21/16 at No. 1711 WDA 2014, affirming the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County entered 10/7/14 at Nos. CP-02-CR-0000261-2014, CP-02-CR-0001018-2014, CP-02-CR-0002489-2014, CP-02-CR-0002529-2014, CP-02-CR-0003271-2014 and CP-02-CR-0004050-2014




         This matter concerns a statutory risk reduction incentive program, eligibility for which requires that the offender lack a "history of present or past violent behavior." The question presented on appeal concerns whether a single conviction for burglary - which the parties agree is a crime demonstrating violent behavior - constitutes such a history.

         In 2009, the General Assembly codified the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive Act (the "RRRI Act" or the "Act"), as Chapter 45 of the Prisons and Parole Code.[1] The Act is intended to encourage eligible offenders to complete Department of Corrections programs that are designed to reduce recidivism. See 61 Pa.C.S. §§4502, 4504(b). Eligible offenders may also be able to take advantage of a reduced sentence. See id. §4505(c). As noted, eligibility is conditioned, in relevant part, upon the absence of a "history of present or past violent behavior, " id. §4503 (defining, inter alia, "eligible offender"), although the Act does not define that phrase. See generally Commonwealth v. Chester, 627 Pa. 429, 432-34, 101 A.3d 56, 57-58 (2014).

         The Commonwealth filed a number of informations against Appellant, each charging him with burglary, conspiracy, and theft-related offenses. Appellant pled guilty to several counts of criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree felony burglary and one count of first-degree felony burglary. See 18 Pa.C.S. §§903(c), 3502. Appellant asked the common pleas court to sentence him under the RRRI Act. The court found Appellant ineligible for the RRRI program and sentenced him to three-to-six years' imprisonment on the burglary conviction, followed by an aggregate fifteen-year term of probation on the conspiracy counts.

         In a post-sentence motion, Appellant asked the court to reconsider his eligibility for the program. In response, the court noted that, in Chester, this Court held that burglary is a crime of violence. The court then denied the motion for reconsideration, referencing Appellant's "prior first degree burglary conviction, " Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle, Nos. CP-02-CR-0000261-2014, et al., Order at 1 (C.P. Allegheny Oct. 7, 2014), although it was unclear whether the court was referring to the present offense or another, earlier offense.

         On appeal, Appellant maintained he was never convicted of burglary on a prior occasion, and the Commonwealth admitted it could not find any indication of such a prior conviction. Therefore, the parties filed a joint motion to remand the matter to the common pleas court to determine whether that court's ruling was based on inaccurate information concerning Appellant's criminal record. The Superior Court acknowledged the confusion on this point and the lack of clarity in the county court's order denying reconsideration. See Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle, 133 A.3d 14, 16 n.4 (Pa. Super. 2016). However, the intermediate court found the uncertainty immaterial and denied the motion, see id., concluding that Appellant was ineligible for the RRRI program based solely on his present conviction for a crime of violence. See id. at 22.

         We granted further review on this latter question. See Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle, ___ Pa. ___, 138 A.3d 609 (2016) (per curiam). As the issue entails statutory interpretation, our review is de novo and plenary. See In re Estate of Wilner, ___ Pa. ___, ___, 142 A.3d 796, 801 (2016).

         Appellant argues it is unlikely that the statutory text excluding from eligibility those with a history of violent behavior was intended to encompass a first-time, single-count offender since, if that had been the General Assembly's design, it could have said so more clearly by using inclusive language phrased in terms of "all convictions involving violent behavior." Brief for Appellant at 11. He notes, in this regard, that the RRRI Act's express intent is to encourage inmates who are capable of reform to participate in programs that tend to reduce recidivism. See id. at 10 (citing 61 Pa.C.S. §4502 (relating to Chapter 45's purpose)). He offers that:

If these offenders volunteer to participate and successfully complete the program, they are rewarded with a reduced prison sentence. A reduced prison sentence has the benefit of relieving the taxpayers of some of the expense of warehousing offenders and it offers the offender an incentive and a second chance to become a law abiding citizen upon release.


         For its part, the Commonwealth acknowledges that the concept of a "present history" is unusual, but it urges this Court to endorse the Superior Court's interpretation because the overall phrase, "present or past violent behavior, " is extremely broad and suggests that a single violent crime can alone be disqualifying. See Brief for Appellee at 22-23. In the alternative, the Commonwealth states that, if this Court agrees with Appellant on the statutory construction ...

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