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Commonwealth v. Ford

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

September 26, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
CHRISTIAN LEE FORD, Appellee

          SUBMITTED: March 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court at No. 620 MDA 2017 dated November 30, 2017, reconsideration denied February 9, 2018, Reversing the PCRA order of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, at Nos. CP-36-CR-0001443-2016, CP-36-CR-0001496-2016, and CP-36-CR-0002530-2016 dated March 10, 2017 and remanding.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          WECHT JUSTICE

         The Sentencing Code mandates that trial courts "shall not sentence a defendant to pay a fine unless it appears of record that the defendant is or will be able to pay" it. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9726(c). The question presented in this post-conviction appeal is whether the Sentencing Code's ability-to-pay prerequisite is satisfied when a defendant agrees to pay a given fine as part of a negotiated guilty plea agreement. We hold that it is not, and that a defendant's mere agreement to pay a specific fine does not constitute evidence that he is or will be able to satisfy the financial obligation.

         This appeal involves three separate criminal cases. The first case began in July 2015, when Christian Lee Ford drove his vehicle off the road, struck several mailboxes, and crashed into a fire hydrant. A police officer who responded to the accident noticed that Ford was unsteady on his feet and was unable to follow simple instructions. Paramedics transported Ford to the hospital for further evaluation and medical treatment.

         At the hospital, a police officer told Ford that he was under arrest for DUI and began reading Ford the required implied consent warnings. See Pa. Dep't. of Transp. v. O'Connell, 555 A.2d 873, 874 (Pa. 1989). Before the officer could finish reading the O'Connell warnings, however, Ford interjected and told the officer that the chemical test would likely reveal cocaine, Xanax, Percocet, and marijuana in his blood. That prediction turned out to be partially correct; Ford ultimately tested positive for cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin. As a result, he was charged with three counts of driving under the influence of a controlled substance and one count of driving with a suspended license.[1] Ford subsequently failed to appear for his preliminary hearing on those charges, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

         The events that led to the second of Ford's criminal cases occurred six months after Ford's failure to appear at his preliminary hearing on the DUI charges. On that day, two police officers spotted Ford at a grocery store in Lancaster County. After confirming that Ford had an active bench warrant, the officers approached him in the parking lot, but he fled on foot. When the officers eventually caught Ford, he continued to resist, and substantial force was required to effectuate the arrest. A search incident to arrest revealed that Ford had 159 stamp bags of heroin and a digital scale in his possession. He was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance ("PWID"), possession of drug paraphernalia, and resisting arrest.[2] Ford posted bail ten days later and again was released from custody.

         A few weeks after posting bail, Ford went missing. A bail bondsman who was attempting to locate Ford and return him to the Lancaster County Prison eventually found Ford and detained him. When the bondsman noticed that Ford was carrying a stamp bag of heroin and a syringe, he called the police for assistance. This brings us to Ford's third and final criminal case. The police officers who responded to the bail bondsman's request for assistance arrested Ford and charged him with possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.[3]

         On June 23, 2016, Ford entered into a negotiated guilty plea agreement, which disposed of all three of his criminal cases. With regard to the charges stemming from the DUI-related accident, Ford pleaded guilty to three counts of driving under the influence of a controlled substance and one count of driving with a suspended license. Ford and the Commonwealth agreed to a sentence of one to four years' incarceration and a $1, 500 fine for the DUI charges, and 90 days' incarceration and a $1, 000 fine for driving with a suspended license.

         As for his second set of criminal charges, Ford pleaded guilty to PWID, resisting arrest, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Ford and the Commonwealth agreed to a sentence of two to four years' incarceration and a fine of $100 for PWID, two years of probation for resisting arrest, and one year of probation for possession of drug paraphernalia.

         Lastly, in his third case, Ford agreed to plead guilty to possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. Ford and the Commonwealth negotiated a sentence of three years' probation and a $100 fine for possession of a controlled substance and one year of probation for possession of drug paraphernalia. The agreement stipulated that Ford would serve all periods of incarceration and probation concurrently and would be responsible for the costs of prosecution.

         The trial court accepted Ford's guilty plea and sentenced him in accordance with the plea agreement. Ford did not file post-sentence motions or a direct appeal, and his judgment of sentence became final in late July 2016. Two months after that, Ford filed a pro se "Petition for Review, " which the court correctly treated as a timely-filed Post Conviction Relief Act[4] ("PCRA") petition. The court then appointed counsel, who filed an amended PCRA petition on Ford's behalf.

         In his amended petition, Ford alleged that he is indigent, that he cannot afford to pay the fines and costs associated with his judgment of sentence, and that his inability to pay those fines and costs will prevent him from being paroled. See Amended PCRA Petition, 12/27/2016, at 1. The gist of Ford's claim is that his sentence is illegal because the trial court "did not conduct a hearing or find facts related to [his] ability to pay the fines and costs" that it imposed. Id.; see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9726(c). Alternatively, Ford argued that plea counsel was ineffective in "failing to pursue a sentence modification or direct appeal from the unlawful sentence." Amended PCRA Petition at 2.

         The PCRA court issued a Rule 907[5] notice stating that it intended to dismiss Ford's petition without a hearing. Ford did not file a response, and the PCRA court issued an opinion and order dismissing Ford's petition. In its opinion, the court first explained that, while defendants are not entitled to a presentence hearing on their ability to pay the mandatory costs of prosecution, such a hearing generally is required when a defendant is sentenced to pay a fine.[6] See PCRA Court Opinion, 3/10/2017, at 11-12 (citing Commonwealth v. Childs, 63 A.3d 323, 326 (Pa. Super. 2013)). Indeed, Subsection 9726(c) of the Sentencing Code provides that:

The court shall not sentence a defendant to pay a fine unless it appears of record that:
(1) the defendant is or will be able to pay the fine; and
(2) the fine will not prevent the defendant from making restitution or reparation to the victim of the crime.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9726(c).

         Despite this statutory language, the PCRA court concluded that no hearing was required in Ford's case because the specific fines imposed were mandated by statute, meaning that the court lacked the authority to impose a reduced fine. PCRA Court Opinion at 12 (concluding that Subsection 9726(c) "does not . . . apply to the mandatory fine provisions applicable in this case"); see Commonwealth v. Gipple, ...


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