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Gruber v. Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 10, 2019

ANN LOUISE GRUBER, Petitioner,
v.
COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF LEBANON COUNTY, Respondent.

          KANE, JUDGE

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOSEPH F. SAPORITO, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On August 16, 2017, the petitioner, appearing through counsel, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus submitted pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1.) At the time of filing, the petitioner, Ann Louise Gruber, was under a sentence of unsupervised probation imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County, which expired the next day.

         I. Statement of the Case

         A. Procedural History

         On December 17, 2015, following a jury trial, Gruber was convicted on misdemeanor charges of disrupting a lawful meeting, defiant trespass, and disorderly conduct (two counts). Commonwealth v. Gruber, Docket Nos. CP-38-CR-0000887-2015, CP-38-CR-0002024-2015 (Lebanon Cty. (Pa.) C.C.P.).[1] On February 17, 2016, she was sentenced to serve an aggregate term of eighteen months on unsupervised probation. Id. Her conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania on January 13, 2017. Commonwealth v. Gruber, 160 A.3d 255 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017) (table decision); see also Commonwealth v. Gruber, No. 475 MDA 2016, 2017 WL 129110 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 13, 2017) (unpublished opinion). She petitioned the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for allocatur, which was denied on July 27, 2017. Commonwealth v. Gruber, 169 A.3d 1072 (Pa. 2017) (per curiam table decision).

         Gruber filed the instant federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on August 16, 2017. (Doc. 1.) The next day, August 17, 2017, her term of probation expired. On October 5, 2017, the respondent filed its answer to the petition, together with several exhibits and a memorandum of law. (Doc. 10; Doc. 11.) On November 1, 2017, the petitioner filed her reply, together with several exhibits. (Doc. 13.)

         Subsequently, while this petition remained pending, the petitioner was charged with several state felony and misdemeanor offenses. See Commonwealth v. Gruber, Docket Nos. CP-38-CR-0001735-2018, CP-38-CR-0000058-2019, CP-38-CR-0000506-2019 (Lebanon Cty. (Pa.) C.C.P.).[2]On April 23, 2019, she pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) and was convicted on felony charges of robbery, criminal trespass, and forgery, and misdemeanor charges of simple assault, harassment, resisting arrest, and theft. Id. On May 29, 2019, she was sentenced to serve a jail term of nine months to two years minus a day, followed by a consecutive term of two years of probation. Id. Gruber has not appealed this most recent conviction and sentence, and the time for doing so has expired. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 720.

         B. Habeas Claims Presented

         The petition has asserted that Gruber is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for the following reasons:

1. Gruber's convictions for disrupting a meeting and disorderly conduct (both counts) were based on insufficient evidence as a matter of law because the evidence failed to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she possessed the requisite intent or mens rea for each of these offenses, particularly in light of the fact that she was attempting to exercise her First Amendment right to free speech at the time of the underlying conduct; and
2. An evidentiary ruling by the trial court that, if she introduced certain evidence regarding a prior civil action against municipal officials that she won, it would open the door for the Commonwealth to introduce evidence regarding an unrelated criminal case in which she lost, violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial and to confront witnesses against her.

         Gruber addressed both of these issues on direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, albeit couched in state-law terms. The Superior Court denied claim 1 on the merits, and it denied claim 2 on the ground that it was waived by Gruber's failure to raise a proper objection before the trial court.

         II. ...


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