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Commonwealth v. Spotz

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

October 18, 2017


          SUBMITTED: June 29, 2017

          SUBMITTED: July 13, 2017

         Appeal from the Order entered on October 12, 2016 in the Court of Common Pleas, Cumberland County, Criminal Division at No. CP-21-CR-0000794-1995.

         Appeal from the Order dated January 11, 2017 in the Court of Common Pleas, Schuylkill County, Criminal Division at No. CP-54-CR-0000269-1995.



          WECHT, JUSTICE

         In these consolidated appeals, [1] we consider whether the invocation of the United States Supreme Court's decisions in Johnson v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), and Welch v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1257 (2016), satisfies the newly-recognized constitutional right exception to the time limit prescribed by the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA").[2] See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1) (requiring all petitions for relief to be filed within one year of the judgment of sentence becoming final); id. § 9545(b)(1)(iii) (providing an exception to the time limit upon the recognition of a new constitutional right that is held to apply retroactively to petitioners whose judgments of sentence have become final). We hold that neither Johnson nor Welch created a constitutional right that applies retroactively to Mark Spotz. Consequently, the timeliness exception does not apply. We affirm the PCRA court's conclusion that Spotz' petitions are untimely, rendering Pennsylvania courts without jurisdiction to provide relief.

         In 1995, Spotz embarked upon a three-day homicide spree through York, Schuylkill, Cumberland, and Clearfield Counties. Spotz killed four people, one of whom was his own brother. In 1996, Spotz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in York, Schuylkill, and Cumberland Counties. In Clearfield County, Spotz was convicted of, inter alia, voluntary manslaughter for the killing of his brother, and received a lengthy prison sentence. The lengthy factual and procedural histories of Spotz' cases have been detailed in the eight prior opinions that this Court has issued in relation to Spotz' various appeals and pursuits of collateral relief.[3] That material is irrelevant to our disposition of the present appeals, and we will not recount it here.

         The only two cases at issue presently are Spotz' death sentences in Cumberland and Schuylkill Counties. In each case, Spotz filed facially untimely petitions for collateral relief, in which he maintained that Johnson and Welch sufficed to satisfy the newly-recognized constitutional right exception.[4] As discussed in more detail below, in Johnson, The Supreme Court of the United States held that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (the "Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 924 (generally); id. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii) (residual clause), was unconstitutionally vague, violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 2563. The "residual clause" permitted increased sentences for those individuals who had committed three or more "violent felonies, " which included any felony that "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). In the next term, the Court held in Welch that its decision in Johnson with regard to the "residual clause" was a new substantive rule that necessitated its application even to those whose judgments of sentence had become final. Welch, 136 S.Ct. at 1265.

         According to Spotz, the unconstitutional language in the Act's "residual clause" substantively is identical to the aggravating circumstance set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9) (the "(d)(9) aggravator"), which requires proof by the Commonwealth that "[t]he defendant has a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person." Id. Because the "residual clause" at issue in Johnson effectively mirrors the (d)(9) aggravator, Spotz believes that Johnson and Welch are sufficient to satisfy the elements of the newly-recognized constitutional right exception to the PCRA's time bar. Both PCRA courts rejected this line of argument because, inter alia, those cases found a federal sentencing statute unconstitutional, whereas Spotz was sentenced under a state statute. The courts held that Johnson and Welch simply did not apply to Spotz, at least for purposes of the exception being invoked by Spotz. See Trial Court Opinion-Cumberland Cty., 10/12/2016, at 3 (explaining that Spotz "was not sentenced under this federal statute"); Trial Court Opinion-Schuylkill Cty., 12/13/2016, at 3 (agreeing with the Commonwealth's argument that Spotz did "not meet the requirements of the exception, because Johnson and Welch apply only to a federal statute that has nothing to do with Spotz' case"); id. at 5 (noting that "Spotz has also not been sentenced under the federal statute ruled unconstitutional, nor are the two statutes used in the same manner"). Accordingly, both courts held that Spotz' petitions were untimely, that no exception applied, and that no court had jurisdiction to afford the relief sought by Spotz. Spotz then appealed both cases to this Court.[5]

         Our standard of review for issues arising from the denial of PCRA relief is well-settled. We must determine whether the PCRA court's ruling is supported by the record and free of legal error. Commonwealth v. Washington, 927 A.2d 586, 593 (Pa. 2007).

         As noted earlier, the two collateral petitions filed by Spotz in these cases are facially untimely. See supra n.4. Thus, our sole inquiry is whether Spotz sufficiently has satisfied a statutory exception so as to overcome the patent untimeliness of his petitions. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that he has not done so.

         To be timely, a PCRA petition, including a second or subsequent petition, must be filed within one year of a judgment of sentence becoming final. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1). This time constraint is jurisdictional in nature, and is not subject to tolling or other equitable considerations. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 139 A.3d 178, 185 (Pa. 2016) (citing Commonwealth v. Williams, 105 A.3d 1234, 1239 (Pa. 2014); Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 722 A.2d 638, 641 (Pa. 1998)). The statutory time bar "implicates the court's very power to adjudicate a controversy and prohibits a court from extending filing periods except as the statute permits." Robinson, 139 A.3d at 185 (citing Commonwealth v. Fahy, 737 A.2d 214, 222 (Pa. 1999)). Thus, the jurisdictional time bar only can be overcome by satisfaction of one of the three statutory exceptions codified at 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(i)-(iii). The PCRA petitioner bears the burden of proving the applicability of one of the exceptions. Commonwealth v. Edmiston, 65 A.3d 339, 346 (Pa. 2013).

         Only the newly-recognized constitutional right exception is relevant here.[6] We examined the terms of this exception, and a petitioner's burden thereunder, in Commonwealth v. Abdul-Salaam, 812 A.2d 497 (Pa. 2002):

Subsection (iii) of Section 9545[(b)(1)] has two requirements. First, it provides that the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or this [C]ourt after the time provided in this section. Second, it provides that the right "has been held" by "that court" to apply retroactively. Thus, a petitioner must prove that there is a "new" constitutional right and that the right "has been held" by that court to apply retroactively. The language "has been held" is in the past tense. These words mean that the action has already occurred, i.e., "that court" has already held the new constitutional right to be retroactive to cases on collateral review. By employing the past tense in ...

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