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Commonwealth v. Commonwealth

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 24, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
ROBERT WILLIAMS Appellant COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
ROBERT WILLIAMS Appellant

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence November 6, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0011614-2007

          Appeal from the PCRA Order Entered June 25, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0011614-2007

          BEFORE: PANELLA, P.J., OLSON, J., and FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

          OPINION

          PANELLA, P.J.

         Robert Williams appeals from the June 25, 2018 order of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas denying his petition pursuant to the Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 9541-9546. Williams argues he is entitled to PCRA relief in the form of a new trial based on after-discovered evidence. The Commonwealth concedes a new trial is required.

         After careful review, we conclude the PCRA court erred in denying Williams' PCRA petition. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the PCRA court and grant Williams a new trial.

         On January 24, 2007, Williams was arrested and charged with various drug and gun related offenses. The case proceeded to a non-jury trial. The Commonwealth presented testimony from a single witness, former Philadelphia Police Officer Reginald Graham. Following the close of evidence, the trial court found Williams guilty of carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a loaded weapon, carrying a firearm in public in Philadelphia, possession of an instrument of crime, simple assault, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and intentional possession of a controlled substance by a person not registered.[1] On January 16, 2009, the court sentenced Williams to 11 ½ to 23 months' imprisonment, followed by 10 years of probation. Williams did not seek direct review after sentencing.

         While serving probation, Williams committed numerous technical violations. Despite these technical violations, the trial court demonstrated patience and leniency by allowing Williams to continue on supervision. However, on November 6, 2017, Williams appeared before the trial court for a violation of probation hearing after which the trial court revoked Williams' probation and imposed a state prison sentence of 2 to 4 years' incarceration. Williams appealed the revocation and sentence to this Court.

         On February 14, 2018, while his direct appeal from the revocation of probation was still pending, Williams filed a PCRA petition. In his petition, Williams alleged he recently discovered serious allegations of misconduct against former Officer Graham. Due to the nature of the allegations, the Commonwealth agreed Williams should receive PCRA relief in the form of a new trial. However, following an evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court denied the petition. Williams again appealed.

         In this consolidated appeal, Williams raises three issues for our review. However, we need not consider all of Williams' issues on appeal because our disposition of his PCRA petition will resolve the entire matter. Therefore, we address whether Williams' claim of after-discovered evidence entitles him to a new trial pursuant to the PCRA.

         As an initial matter, we must decide whether the pendency of Williams' direct appeal from the judgment of sentence after his probation was revoked rendered his subsequent PCRA petition a legal nullity. Generally, a petitioner, such as Williams, may only file a PCRA petition after he "has waived or exhausted his direct appeal rights." Commonwealth v. Leslie, 757 A.2d 984, 985 (Pa. Super. 2000) (citation omitted). If a petition is filed while a direct appeal is pending, the PCRA court should dismiss it without prejudice towards the petitioner's right to file a petition once his direct appeal rights have been exhausted. See id.

         However, revocation of probation does not materially alter the original judgment of sentence. See Commonwealth v. Anderson, 788 A.2d 1019, 1021 (Pa. Super. 2001). Therefore, probation revocation creates a wrinkle in the otherwise straightforward determination of finality. See id. For issues challenging the revocation and the sentence imposed after revocation, a new date for finality is created. See id. But challenges to the original trial and sentencing are not affected by the revocation. See id., at 1022. To be timely, post-conviction challenges to the original trial and sentencing must be raised within one year of the date the original judgment of sentence became final. See id.

         Here, this appeal consolidates an appeal from the revocation of Williams' probation and an appeal from the denial of Williams' PCRA petition that was filed while the revocation appeal was still pending. The PCRA petition does not challenge any aspect of the probation revocation. Instead, it is focused exclusively on the underlying trial and conviction. Under Anderson, we conclude that Williams was not precluded from filing his PCRA petition while his appeal from the revocation of his probation was still pending.

         Turning to his petition, we note that we review the denial of post-conviction collateral relief to determine whether the PCRA court's findings are supported by the record and free from legal error. See Commonwealth v. Small, 189 A.3d 961, 971 (Pa. 2018).

         Prior to reaching the merits of Williams' claim, we must first consider the timeliness of his PCRA petition. See Commonwealth v. Miller, 102 A.3d 988, 992 (Pa. Super. 2014). The time limitations of the PCRA are jurisdictional in nature and, as such, a court cannot address the merits of an untimely petition. See Commonwealth v. Robinson, 837 A.2d 1157, 1161 (Pa. 2003). All PCRA petitions "including a second or subsequent petition shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment [of sentence] becomes final". 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1).

         Williams' original judgment of sentence became final on February 16, 2009, when the time to file a direct appeal with this Court expired. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(3) ("[a] judgment becomes finals at the conclusion of direct review, including discretionary review in the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, or at the expiration of time for seeking the review."); see also Pa.R.A.P. 903(a) (requiring notice of appeal to be filed within 30 days after entry of appealable order). His petition, filed 9 years later, is patently untimely. Thus, the PCRA court lacked jurisdiction to review Williams' petition unless he was able to successfully plead and prove an exception to the PCRA's time limitation.

         To overcome the PCRA's time-bar, a petitioner must allege and prove one of three exceptions. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1)(i)-(iii). Here, Williams argues that his petition qualifies for the newly discovered facts exception. The newly discovered facts exception provides:

(b) Time for filing petition. --
(1) any petition under this subchapter, including a second or subsequent petition, shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final, unless the petition alleges and the petitioner proves that:
(ii) the facts upon which the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1)(ii). Even if this exception applies, Williams' PCRA petition will only be considered if it was "filed within 60 days of the date the claim could have been presented." 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(2).[2]

         Williams concedes his petition is facially untimely, but contends he satisfied the newly discovered facts exception to the PCRA's time-bar. See Supplemental PCRA Petition, filed 5/16/18, at ¶ 21 (asserting the initial petition was timely pursuant to the newly discovered facts exception to the PCRA time limitations). The PCRA court agreed, and found Williams' petition satisfied the newly discovered facts exception to the PCRA's 1-year time-bar. See PCRA Court Opinion, filed 6/25/18, at 15-16. The Commonwealth also agrees that Williams' petition meets this exception. See, generally, Appellee's Brief. Upon review of the PCRA court's factual findings and conclusions related to the issue of timeliness, we find no error or abuse of ...


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