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Commonwealth v. Ligon

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 24, 2019


          Appeal from the Order December 6, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0009244-2012



          MCLAUGHLIN, J.

         The Commonwealth appeals from the order dismissing its case against Oronda Ligon on the day of trial. The Commonwealth argues the trial court abused its discretion when it dismissed the case against Ligon because, although the complaining witnesses were not at the courthouse, the Commonwealth had informed the court that they were on their way and it was ready to proceed with trial. We reverse and remand.

         Police arrested Ligon in March 2012 and charged him with a large number of crimes, including charges of robbery, burglary, and aggravated assault, as well as violations of the Uniform Firearms Act.[1] The charges stemmed from the September 2011 robbery and assault of Carl Brady and his grandmother, Doris Martin.

         After five continuances of the preliminary hearing, Ligon was held for trial. The court then granted copious continuances of the trial; Ligon requested most of the continuances. He was subject to unrelated charges in federal court and told the Commonwealth that he wanted to resolve those charges before pleading guilty in this matter. Ligon ultimately elected to go to trial in this case and, after additional continuances, the case was reassigned to a new trial judge. The new judge granted two more continuances, one due to a court conflict and one because the prosecutor had another trial.

         The trial in this case finally began on Monday, December 5, 2016, and on that day, the parties picked a jury. The following morning, before the jury came into the courtroom, the assistant district attorney ("ADA") told the trial court that the complaining witnesses had not arrived. N.T., 12/6/16, at 3. The ADA stated that, although she had arranged a ride for the complaining witnesses, when the ride arrived, they did not answer the door. Id. at 3, 12. The ADA said she had been in "constant contact" with them, having spoken with both the day before trial and having met with one of them on the Friday preceding trial. Id. 3-4. The ADA asked for "a little bit more time" for the witnesses to arrive. Id. at 3. The court said it could "probably give [the Commonwealth] till 11." Id. at 4.

         When the court reconvened at 11:00 a.m., a second ADA explained that the probation officer of complaining witness Carl Brady was attempting to contact him, and the Commonwealth had arranged "for transportation to go to his house, since he is in a wheelchair to get him into that vehicle and come down to court." Id. at 8. The ADA stated she "should have confirmation that all of that is happening in about 20 to 30 minutes." Id. The court said it would recess the proceedings until 11:45 a.m. Id. at 16.

         The Court reconvened at 12:00 p.m., and the first ADA said the witnesses were "on their way, " said she was ready to proceed with trial, and asked if she could begin with her opening statement. Id. at 17. The trial court replied that the witnesses were supposed to be there at 9:30 a.m. The ADA again advised the court that the witnesses were on their way. She said she was ready to begin with her opening statement and could put on another witness, by the end of which she was "absolutely certain" the complaining witnesses would arrive. Id. at 17-18. The trial court declined to allow the prosecution to begin. It instead dismissed the charges, stating, "Okay. Well, the case is discharged." Id. at 18.

         The Commonwealth filed this appeal.[2] In its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion, the trial court stated that it dismissed the case because, in the absence of the complaining witnesses, the prosecution would be unable to make out a prima facie case. Trial Court Opinion, filed July 19, 2017, at 3. The court also opined that the order from which the Commonwealth had appealed was not a final order, because the dismissal was without prejudice and the Commonwealth could refile the charges. Id. at 2. The court stated:

In this case, this court dismissed the criminal complaint against [Ligon] in light of the Commonwealth's failure to make a prima facie case due to the absence of the complaining witnesses on the date set for trial, nearly five years after the complaint was filed. Finally on the date of trial, a jury was selected and waited patiently on the following day for hours before the case was dismissed. This court did not dismiss the complaint with prejudice. At the trial readiness conference on December 5, 2016, the Commonwealth asserted that it was ready to proceed to trial. On December 6th at trial, the Commonwealth failed to have the complaining witnesses appear in court for necessary testimony. Thereupon, this court dismissed the complaint against [Ligon]. As in [Commonwealth v. Jones, 676 A.2d 251 (Pa.Super. 1996)] and [Commonwealth v. Waller, 682 A.2d 1292 (Pa.Super. 1996) (en banc)], this court's dismissal was based upon the Commonwealth's failure to present necessary witnesses to make a prima facie case. In neither the docket nor the transcripts did this court ever represent the dismissal to be with prejudice. This court also notes that the dismissal of the complaint occurred 1, 782 days after the complaints had originally been filed. Therefore, the Commonwealth's appeal is precluded from appellate review and its sole recourse is the refiling of criminal charges.

1925(a) Op. at 3-4 (italics added, citations to record omitted).

         The Commonwealth's brief raises the following issue:

Did the trial court abuse its discretion in dismissing the case after the statute of limitations had expired because the victims – an elderly woman and a paraplegic man – were unexpectedly late for court where the Commonwealth affirmed that, despite the victim's absence, it was ready ...

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