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Commonwealth v. Delgros

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

April 26, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
EDWARD STEPHEN DELGROS, Appellant

          Submitted Date: November 21, 2017

          Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered December 13, 2016 at No. 1472 WDA 2015, affirming the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County entered June 23, 2015 at No. CP-43-CR-0001496-2014.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          BAER, JUSTICE.

         We granted allowance of appeal to determine whether a defendant, who is ineligible for statutory collateral review because he was sentenced to pay a fine without incarceration or probation, may obtain review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims presented in post-sentence motions filed in the trial court. The lower courts held that Edward Stephen Delgros ("Appellant") could not obtain review of his ineffectiveness claims because he failed to satisfy any of the exceptions to this Court's general rule deferring such claims to collateral review under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. For the reasons set forth infra, we adopt a new exception to the general deferral rule, requiring trial courts to examine ineffectiveness claims when the defendant is ineligible for PCRA review. Accordingly, we vacate the Superior Court's judgment and remand to the trial court for consideration of Appellant's post-sentence claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

         I. Background

         The record establishes that in June of 2001, Appellant hired Robert Croyle to install a double-wide mobile home on his property. Croyle purchased two I-beams, described as being lightweight magnesium and more than twenty feet long, for $1, 400.00 each and employed them to move the double-wide into position. Croyle left the I-beams and other materials on Appellant's property, intending to pick them up at a later time. When Croyle returned, his materials were not at the site, and Appellant denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Croyle reported the I-beams missing to the Hermitage Police Department. When Deputy Chief Eric Jewel questioned Appellant about the I-beams, he reiterated that he did not know where they had gone. With Appellant's authorization, Deputy Chief Jewel searched the premises to no avail.

         Several months later, Appellant told his father that he had Croyle's I-beams and asked for his father's assistance in hiding them in the woods. Five to seven years thereafter, Appellant and his father used the I-beams to build a porch onto Appellant's house. In April of 2014, Hermitage police received a report that the I-beams were on Appellant's property. Appellant's father subsequently told Deputy Chief Jewel that Appellant had used Croyle's I-beams in the construction of his porch.

         Deputy Chief Jewel went to Appellant's residence and saw the I-beams supporting the porch roof in plain view. After obtaining a warrant, photographs and samples of the I-beams were taken, which indicated that the beams were made of aluminum. When Croyle was asked about his prior claim that the missing beams were made of magnesium, he explained that he thought the beams were magnesium, but that they could have been aluminum. Based on holes present in the I-beams, however, Croyle identified the I-beams photographed in Appellant's porch as being those that went missing years earlier.

         Appellant was thereafter charged with the third degree felony of receiving stolen property. Following a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of this offense and was sentenced to pay restitution in the amount of $2, 800.00, and a fine of $15, 000.00. Appellant obtained new counsel and filed post-sentence motions seeking a new trial and/or arrest of judgment, raising the following contentions: (1) the prosecution was barred by the applicable statute of limitations; (2) the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; (3) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; (4) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence regarding the value of the I-beams for purposes of lowering the grade of the offense; and (5) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek suppression of the search warrant. Appellant requested an evidentiary hearing on the ineffectiveness claims.

         The trial court granted oral argument and ordered briefing on the questions presented in the post-sentence motions. Thereafter, the trial court rejected Appellant's first three substantive claims on their merits. As to the remaining two claims, alleging trial counsel's ineffectiveness, the trial court denied Appellant's request for an evidentiary hearing. The court held that Appellant was not entitled to relief because the assertions of ineffectiveness constituted collateral claims that could only be raised pursuant to the PCRA. Trial Court Opinion at 7. The court reasoned that the PCRA requires a petitioner to be "currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, probation or parole for the crime" at the time relief is granted, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(1)(i), and that Appellant was never incarcerated, on probation, or on parole as he was sentenced only to pay a fine.[1] Trial Court Opinion at 7 (citing Commonwealth v. Fisher, 703 A.2d 714 (Pa. Super. 1997) (holding that Subsection 9543(a)'s eligibility requirement of current incarceration, probation or parole precludes PCRA relief for those petitioners who were sentenced only to pay a fine)).

         On appeal to Superior Court, Appellant contended, inter alia, that the trial court erred by declining to entertain his ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Appellant argued that while this Court in Commonwealth v. Grant, 813 A.2d 726, 738 (Pa. 2002), set forth a general rule deferring ineffective assistance of counsel claims to collateral review under the PCRA, we created exceptions to that rule permitting ineffectiveness claims to be presented in post-sentence motions and on direct appeal under limited circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Holmes, 79 A.3d 562, 563-64 (Pa. 2013) (holding that a trial court retained discretion to entertain ineffectiveness claims on post-verdict motions and direct appeal where: (1) the claim of ineffectiveness is apparent from the record and meritorious to the extent that immediate consideration best serves the interests of justice; or (2) where there is good cause shown and the defendant knowingly and expressly waives his entitlement to seek subsequent PCRA review from his conviction and sentence). Appellant argued that he was entitled to review of his ineffectiveness claims under both of the Holmes' exceptions. He further maintained that, absent the opportunity to challenge his trial counsel's stewardship in post-sentence motions, he would be denied the opportunity to litigate his Sixth Amendment right to competent representation at trial, thereby depriving him of due process.

         The Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence in a memorandum opinion rejecting, inter alia, his contention that the trial court erred by refusing to entertain his ineffectiveness claims. Regarding the first Holmes' exception to the general deferral rule, the Superior Court held that neither of Appellant's ineffectiveness claims (alleging a failure to challenge the value of the stolen property and a failure to challenge the validity of the search warrant) were apparent from the record and meritorious. The intermediate appellate court went on to hold that the second Holmes exception (good cause/waiver of future PCRA review) presumed that the defendant would subsequently be entitled to PCRA review. Because Appellant was sentenced to a fine and was not incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, the Superior Court held that Appellant would never be entitled to PCRA review under Subsection 9543(a)(1)(i), and, thus, could not satisfy Holmes' second exception to obtain merits review of post-sentence claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

         Finally, the Superior Court declined to find a due process violation resulting from Appellant's total inability to obtain review of his ineffectiveness claims, citing Commonwealth v. Turner, 80 A.3d 754, 764-67 (Pa. 2013), for the proposition that there is no due process right to non-custodial collateral review. Superior Court Memorandum at 11-12. Similarly, the intermediate appellate court cited its previous decision in Commonwealth v. Fisher, supra, which held that a PCRA petitioner sentenced only to pay a fine is ineligible for collateral relief under Subsection 9543(a) of the PCRA. The Superior Court did not observe any distinction between Appellant's attempt to raise ineffectiveness claims in post-sentence motions and the attempts made by the PCRA petitioners in Turner and Fisher to obtain review of ineffectiveness claims presented in a PCRA petition governed by the statutory requisites.[2]

         As noted, this Court granted allocatur to address whether Appellant, who is ineligible for collateral review under the PCRA because he was sentenced only to pay a fine, is entitled to review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims presented in post-sentence motions. This question constitutes a question of law; thus, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Commonwealth v. Baldwin, 58 A.3d 754, 762 (Pa. 2011).

         II. The Parties' Arguments

         Appellant contends that he is entitled to the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. He submits that this right encompasses the fundamental right to effective trial counsel. According to Appellant, his right to due process was violated when the lower courts declined to provide him an opportunity to litigate his challenges to trial counsel's representation, particularly considering that he can never present ineffectiveness claims on collateral review due to his ineligibility under Subsection 9543(a)(1).

         Appellant asserts that the lower courts erred by concluding that his constitutional right to challenge trial counsel's stewardship was subordinate to or dependent upon the eligibility requirements of the PCRA. He contends that the evolution of this Court's case law regarding the general deferral rule supports his position that ineffectiveness claims should be addressed during the appellate process when those claims cannot be asserted under the PCRA. Specifically, Appellant relies on Holmes, which affords trial courts discretion to review ineffectiveness claims where there is good cause shown and the defendant knowingly and expressly waives his entitlement to seek subsequent PCRA review of his conviction or sentence. He contends that the Holmes Court recognized that review of ineffectiveness claims during direct appeal proceedings was advantageous when it allowed defendants with shorter sentences, who would be ineligible for PCRA review when they were no longer incarcerated, the ability to litigate their ineffectiveness claims on direct appeal. Appellant posits that defendants who are ineligible for PCRA review because they were sentenced only to pay a fine should likewise be entitled to review of ineffectiveness clams to vindicate their constitutional right to effective representation at trial, which would otherwise be forfeited.

         Appellant argues that the Superior Court misinterpreted the good cause/PCRA waiver exception in Holmes by presuming that application of such exception required compliance with the statutory requisites for PCRA relief. Contrary to the lower court's holding, he submits, Holmes in no way suggests that a defendant, convicted of a felony but sentenced only to pay a fine, should never have an opportunity to challenge his counsel's stewardship and/or to demonstrate that counsel ineffectiveness affected the outcome of his case. To the contrary, Appellant posits, when read in its entirety, Holmes recognizes the compelling need for the "short sentence exception" so that PCRA petitioners will have at least one opportunity for review ...


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