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Commonwealth v. Murphy

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 23, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
PARIS RAYMONT MURPHY Appellant

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence May 9, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-26-CR-0001494-2016

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., RANSOM, J., and STEVENS [*] , P.J.E.

          OPINION

          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         Appellant Paris Raymont Murphy appeals from the judgment of sentence entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County following his conviction by a jury on the charges of possession of a controlled substance/contraband by an inmate, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5123(a)(2), possession of a controlled substance, 35 P.S. 780-113(a)(16), and use/possession of drug paraphernalia, 35 P.S. 780-113(a)(32). After a careful review, we affirm.

         The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows: On February 21, 2016, while an inmate at SCI-Fayette, Appellant engaged in an altercation with another inmate. N.T., 5/3/17, at 12-13. Several correctional officers restrained Appellant and then searched him, finding heroin, cocaine, a synthetic cannabinoid known as "K2, " and stamp bags. Id. at 24, 26, 74-75.

         On May 3, 2017, represented by counsel, Appellant proceeded to a jury trial, at which the Commonwealth presented the testimony of four correctional officers, the investigating Pennsylvania State Police officer, and a Pennsylvania State Police forensic scientist supervisor. Relevantly, the Commonwealth offered testimony that illegal drugs and paraphernalia were found in Appellant's pockets. Id. at 24. Appellant was the sole witness for the defense; his trial strategy was that he and his cellmate borrowed each other's prison clothes and the drugs/paraphernalia belonged to his cellmate. Id. at 83.

         At the conclusion of the testimony, the jury convicted Appellant of the offenses indicated supra, and on May 9, 2017, he was sentenced to an aggregate of 27 months to 7 years in prison, to be served consecutively to the sentence he was then currently serving in an unrelated matter. Appellant did not file post-sentence motions; however, this timely, counseled appeal followed. All Pa.R.A.P. 1925 requirements have been met.

         On appeal, Appellant first claims the trial court abused its discretion in admitting into evidence his admission of guilt, which he made with regard to the possession of the instant drugs at an administrative disciplinary hearing before the Department of Corrections.[1] Appellant contends his admission of guilt during the administrative proceeding was irrelevant in the subsequent criminal proceeding. He further alleges the danger of unfair prejudice outweighed the evidence's probative value in that the jury was likely to conclude that a plea of guilt at the administrative hearing was similar to a plea of guilt before the Court of Common Pleas, and the evidence inflamed the jury.

         Initially, we note that:

[t]he 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. 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. Woodard, 634 Pa. 162, 129 A.3d 480, 494 (2015) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Generally, all relevant evidence is admissible, and evidence is relevant if it has "any tendency to make a fact more or less probable then it would be without the evidence." Pa.R.E. 401-02. However, the court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by a danger of "unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence." Pa.R.E. 403.

         Evidence that might otherwise be inadmissible may be introduced for some other purpose, particularly where Appellant's own testimony "opens the door" for such evidence to be used for impeachment purposes. See Pa.R.E. 607(b) ("The credibility of a witness may be impeached by any evidence relevant to that issue, except as otherwise provided by statute or these rules.").[2] "A litigant opens the door to inadmissible evidence by presenting proof that creates a false impression refuted by the otherwise prohibited evidence." Commonwealth v. Nypaver, 69 A.3d 708, 716-17 (Pa.Super. 2013) (citations omitted). Further, it is noteworthy that trial judges retain wide latitude as to the scope of cross-examination and will not be reversed absent an abuse of that discretion. See Commonwealth v. Bozyk, 987 A.2d 753 (Pa.Super. 2009).

         In the case sub judice, the following relevant exchange occurred between Appellant and his defense counsel upon direct-examination at the jury trial:

Q: And in the video you were strip searched?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: During that time, to your knowledge, did you have any synthetic marijuana?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you have any heroin?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you have any cocaine?
A: No, sir.

N.T., 5/3/17, at 83-84.

         On cross-examination at trial, the following relevant exchange occurred between Appellant and the prosecutor:

Q: Do you recall after this incident an Administrative Hearing regarding the same underlying facts as this incident within the Department of Corrections?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Your honor, I would just want to object to this as to relevancy.
THE COURT: Your objection [is] noted. If it's for impeachment, we'll permit you to continue.
[THE PROSECUTOR]: Thank you, Your Honor.
Q: Do you recall that hearing?
A: Can you repeat the question?
Q: Certainly. Do you recall an Administrative Hearing within the Department of Corrections pertaining to this same underlying incident?
A: Yes.
Q: And do you recall the result or the disposition of that ...

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