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Commonwealth v. Stansbury

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 5, 2019


          Appeal from the PCRA Order Entered January 4, 2019 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0006484-2014, CP-51-CR-0006485-2014

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., SHOGAN, J., and STRASSBURGER, J. [*]


          BOWES, J.

         Kareem J. Stansbury appeals pro se from the order that dismissed his petition filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). We affirm.

         We relate a concise summary of the history of this case. Appellant drove up to a home in Philadelphia and fired shots at two individuals sitting on the porch: Abdul Scott, his brother, and Rachel Ostrow, a resident of the building. Appellant was charged with various crimes related to the incident at two separate docket numbers: one as to victim Scott (CP-51-CR-0006485-2014) and one as to victim Ostrow (CP-51-CR-0006484-2014).

         The two cases proceeded to a consolidated trial, at which Appellant exercised his right to represent himself. After a mistrial and a second trial, a jury convicted Appellant of two counts of attempted murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and other firearm-related crimes. Appellant was sentenced to an aggregate term of thirty-five to seventy years of incarceration, followed by seven years of probation. Appellant's pro se direct appeal, involving both lower-court docket numbers, resulted in no relief. Commonwealth v. Stansbury, 190 A.3d 719 (Pa.Super. 2018).

         Appellant filed a timely pro se PCRA petition docketed in both cases. Therein, he raised two claims regarding evidence at his trial: (1) that the evidence was insufficient to establish his identity as the shooter, and (2) that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion in limine to exclude the 911 telephone call during which Appellant was identified as the shooter. PCRA Petition, 5/15/18, at ¶¶ 12-13. The PCRA court appointed counsel pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 904(C).

         Counsel filed a no-merit letter, captioned at both docket numbers, and requested to withdraw pursuant to Commonwealth v. Turner, 544 A.2d 927 (Pa. 1988), and Commonwealth v. Finley, 550 A.2d 213 (Pa.Super. 1988) (en banc). Counsel indicated that the issues Appellant wished to raise could not afford relief because they were previously-litigated on direct appeal, and, further, that Appellant could not raise the claims under the guise of ineffective assistance of counsel because Appellant had represented himself. No-Merit Letter, 11/7/18, at unnumbered 2. In a single document including both case numbers, the PCRA court advised Appellant of his right to respond to counsel's letter pro se or with privately-retained counsel, and issued notice of its intent to dismiss Appellant's petition without a hearing pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 907. Rule 907 Notice, 11/7/18. Appellant filed a pro se response, listing both docket numbers, in which he indicated that he had desired to proceed pro se all along, contended that his issues are meritorious, and claimed that there were factual disputes that warranted a hearing. Objection to Rule 907 Notice, 11/16/18.

         On January 4, 2019, the PCRA court entered a single order, at both criminal case docket numbers under one caption, dismissing Appellant's PCRA petition and granting counsel's request to withdraw. The order contained the following language pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 907(4):[1] "[Appellant] is hereby advised that he has thirty days from this day, to file a written notice of appeal to the Superior Court. Said notice of appeal must be filed with the Clerk of Courts of Philadelphia County-Criminal Division. . . ." Order, 1/4/19 (emphases added). Appellant timely complied with the PCRA court's directions by filing a single notice of appeal listing both cases' docket numbers.

         This Court issued a rule to show cause why the appeal should not be quashed pursuant to our Supreme Court's holding in Commonwealth v. Walker, 185 A.3d 969 (Pa. 2018). In that case, the High Court held that an appeal must be quashed if an appellant fails to file separate notices of appeal at each docket number implicated by an order resolving issues that involve more than one trial court docket will result in quashal of the appeal, as is the procedure indicated in the Note to Pa.R.A.P. 341. The Walker Court acknowledged that its decision "was contrary to decades of case law from this Court and the intermediate appellate courts[.]" Walker, supra at 974, 977. Hence, the Court held that its ruling applied only prospectively, and directed that the Rules be amended to comport with the Walker decision.[2] Id. at 977-78.

         Appellant filed a response to the rule to show cause in which he indicated, inter alia, that the PCRA court "failed to advise the pro se Appellant of the defect and afford the Appellant an opportunity to correct the defect." Response to Rule to Show Cause, 2/25/19. As a result, the rule was discharged and the issue referred to the merits panel for consideration. Order, 6/18/19.

         Hence, before we may delve into the substance of Appellant's appeal, we must determine whether Walker and its progeny mandate quashal. At the time Appellant requested the opportunity to correct the defect in his notice of appeal, time had expired for him to file timely, Walker-compliant notices of appeal. See Pa.R.A.P. 903(a) (providing notice of appeal "shall be filed within 30 days after the entry of the order from which the appeal is taken"). This Court generally has no authority to extend the time for filing a notice of appeal. See Pa.R.A.P. 105(b) ("An appellate court for good cause shown may upon application enlarge the time prescribed by these rules or by its order for doing any act, or may permit an act to be done after the expiration of such time, but the court may not enlarge the time for filing a notice of appeal . . . .").

         Nonetheless, it has long been the law of this Commonwealth that the failure to file a timely appeal as a result of a breakdown in the court system is an exception to that general rule. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Braykovich, 664 A.2d 133, 136-38 (Pa.Super. 1995) (discussing cases and holding failure of clerk of courts to advise defendant that his post-sentence motion had been denied by operation of law excused late-filed appeal).

         We have many times declined to quash an appeal when the defect resulted from an appellant's acting in accordance with misinformation relayed to him by the trial court. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Flowers, 149 A.3d 867, 872 (Pa.Super. 2016) (holding breakdown in court operation granted this Court jurisdiction over untimely appeal where trial court failed to correct counsel's misstatement about deadline for filing appeal and incorrectly provided that the appellant had an additional thirty days to appeal from order denying motion for reconsideration of sentenced imposed upon revocation of intermediate punishment); Commonwealth v. Patterson, 940 A.2d 493, 498 (Pa.Super. 2007) (compiling cases in which the "courts of this Commonwealth have held that a court breakdown occurred in instances where the trial court, at the time of sentencing, either failed to advise Appellant of his post-sentence and appellate rights or misadvised him"); Commonwealth v. Parlante, 823 A.2d 927, 929 (Pa.Super. 2003) ("[W]e decline to quash this appeal ...

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