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Commonwealth v. Karner

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 20, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellant
v.
SEAN J. KARNER Appellee

          Appeal from the Order Entered November 13, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-09-CR-0006386-2017

          BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., SHOGAN, J., and PLATT [*] , J.

          OPINION

          GANTMAN, P.J.

         Appellant, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appeals from the order entered in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, which granted the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of Appellee, Sean J. Karner, and dismissed counts two and three against him for failure to present a prima facie case. We affirm.

         The trial court opinion sets forth the relevant facts of this case as follows:

On June 16, 2017, [Appellee] was involved in a two vehicle accident in which the Ford pickup truck that he was driving impacted the rear end of a Honda sedan driven by Jacqueline Grosso, as the vehicles traveled northbound on Route 202 near New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Upon impact, the Honda automobile spun clockwise across a parking lot and hit a nearby building. Jacqueline Grosso was severely injured and Ralph Grosso, Jacqueline's husband who was occupying the passenger's seat, was killed. [Appellee]'s truck also crashed into the building.
As a result of that vehicle collision, [Appellee] was subsequently arrested and charged on or about August 18, 2017, with one count each of Homicide by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence (DUI); Homicide by Vehicle; Aggravated Assault by Vehicle While DUI; Aggravated Assault by Vehicle; Simple Assault; Recklessly Endangering Another Person; DUI: Controlled Substance-Impaired Ability-2nd Offense; DUI: Controlled Substance-Schedule 2 or 3-2nd Offense; DUI: Controlled Substance- Metabolite-2nd Offense; and the summary offenses of Reckless Driving; Following Too Closely; and Driving at Safe Speed.[1]
A preliminary hearing was held on September 18, 2017, and all charges were bound over for trial in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.
On October 5, 2017, [Appellee] filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus seeking the dismissal of the non-DUI counts for Homicide by Vehicle And Aggravated Assault by Vehicle, claiming that the Commonwealth failed to establish a prima facie case as to those charges. Specifically, [Appellee] argued that the Commonwealth failed to establish the element of recklessness or gross negligence necessary to support those charges.
A hearing on [Appellee]'s Petition was held on October 27, 2017, after which the matter was taken under advisement. On November 9, 2017, [the court] issued the Order, which was docketed on November 13, 2017, granting [Appellee]'s request and dismissing the non-DUI counts for Homicide by Vehicle and Aggravated Assault by Vehicle.
On December 8, 2017, the Commonwealth filed a Notice of Appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania from the November 9, 2017 Order. In compliance with [the court's] Order of December 13, 2017, the Commonwealth filed on December 22, 2017, its Concise Statement of [Errors] Complained of on Appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b).

(Trial Court Opinion, February 6, 2018, at 1-3) (internal footnotes omitted).

         The Commonwealth raises the following issue on appeal:

DID THE TRIAL COURT ERR BY GRANTING APPELLEE'S PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS AND DISMISSING THE COUNTS OF HOMICIDE BY VEHICLE (NON-DUI) AND AGGRAVATED ASSAULT BY VEHICLE (NON-DUI), RULING THAT THE COMMONWEALTH FAILED TO ESTABLISH A PRIMA FACIE CASE IN CONNECTION TO SAME, WHERE THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED WAS SUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT EACH COUNT FOR SUBMISSION TO A JURY?

(Commonwealth's Brief at 4).

         The Commonwealth argues the evidence was sufficient to establish a prima facie case as to the mens rea of recklessness or gross negligence for the charges of homicide by vehicle and aggravated assault by vehicle. The Commonwealth asserts the record demonstrated that Appellee was speeding and had also violated several provisions of the motor vehicle code while under the influence of the drug, Xanax, and had heroin metabolites in his blood. The Commonwealth submits Appellee's several violations of the motor vehicle code and the presence of drugs in his system are sufficient to establish the mens rea of recklessness or gross negligence. The Commonwealth also contends that the trial court erred in taking the substantially slower speed of the Victims' vehicle into account in its decision. The Commonwealth complains any reference to the speed of the Victims' vehicle constitutes contributory negligence, which is not a suitable consideration in the criminal context and constituted error. The Commonwealth additionally contends the trial court acted on an incomplete record because the court relied on evidence only from the habeas corpus hearing. The Commonwealth reasons the evidence at the preliminary hearing supported a prima facie case because the magistrate judge bound over the charges for the trial court.

         In response, Appellee argues motor vehicle code violations, even if true, do not alone establish recklessness or gross negligence. Specifically, Appellee maintains that the presence of drugs in his system is irrelevant to the non-DUI charges at issue, because the statutes for homicide by vehicle and aggravated assault by vehicle expressly exempt driving under the influence from the inquiry.[2] Appellee also submits that the Victims' slow rate of speed is relevant and informative on whether he was reckless or grossly negligent.

         Appellee further claims the Commonwealth's appeal is improper under this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Wolgemuth, 737 A.2d 757 (Pa.Super. 1999), and the proper procedure following the dismissal of charges for failing to make a prima facie case is for the Commonwealth to re-arrest and re-charge Appellee. Appellee similarly contends that the Commonwealth's statement of questions presented is deficient under Pa.R.A.P. 2116(a) for failing to include every subsidiary argument raised on appeal, which means the Commonwealth waived its issues, and this Court should deny the appeal. Appellee also maintains the correct appellate standard of review is an abuse of discretion, and absent a manifestly unreasonable judgment, the trial court ruling should be upheld.

         The Commonwealth replies that an appeal to this Court is the only procedurally proper response to the trial court's order granting habeas corpus relief in the form of dismissal of the charges. The Commonwealth distinguishes Wolgemuth, supra, because that case concerned the dismissal of charges by the magisterial district court, not the Court of Common Pleas. Because this appeal arises from a dismissal of charges in the Court of Common Pleas, and not the magistrate, the Commonwealth's only option for review is to take a direct appeal to this Court.[3] As to Appellee's contention that the Commonwealth's Rule 1925(b) statement is deficient, the Commonwealth submits Appellee is mistaken.[4] Further, the Commonwealth observes that its appellate brief materially conforms in all respects with the applicable rules, and the omissions alleged are not "substantial" or significantly impair appellate review. Finally, the Commonwealth asserts the correct standard of review on appeal in the present case is plenary, rather than an abuse of ...


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