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Commonwealth v. Maldonado-Vallespil

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 20, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellee
v.
JOSEPH MANUEL MALDONADO-VALLESPIL Appellant

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence imposed July 19, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County Criminal Division at No: CP-06-CR-0006157-2017

          BEFORE: BOWES, OLSON, and STABILE, JJ.

          OPINION

          STABILE, J.

         Appellant, Joseph Manuel Maldonado-Vallespil, appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed on July 19, 2018 in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County after a jury convicted him of receiving stolen property, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3925. Appellant contends the trial court did not have jurisdiction over the crime. We agree and, therefore, vacate the judgment of sentence.

         In its Rule 1925(a) opinion, the trial court provided the following statement of facts:

On October 31, 2017, the victim in this case, Jose Munoz ("Mr. Munoz"), resided at 507 N. 14th Street, Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania ("the Residence"), and was the owner of the Sonador construction company. Appellant was one of Mr. Munoz's employees.
On the above date, Appellant contacted Mr. Munoz and informed him that he would not be working for him anymore. On that same day, Mr. Munoz arrived at work and noticed that he was missing some tools from the inside of his truck. When Mr. Munoz arrived at the Residence later that afternoon, he contacted the police department regarding the missing items. Law enforcement officers arrived at the Residence and Mr. Munoz showed them where the tools were supposed to be inside of his truck. While the officers were present, Mr. Munoz contacted Appellant via telephone and asked him to return the tools. Appellant admitted that he took Mr. Munoz's tools and sold them. Appellant stated that he needed to speak to the purchaser of the tools in order to have them returned. Appellant was instructed by law enforcement to return the tools by 8:00 a.m. the following day. No charges were filed that evening in order to allow Appellant to return the missing tools. Appellant subsequently requested that Mr. Munoz grant him some additional time but Mr. Munoz adhered to the 8:00 a.m. deadline. Appellant failed to return the tools.

Trial Court Opinion, 11/7/18, at 2-3 (references to notes of trial testimony omitted).

         Appellant was charged with theft from a motor vehicle, receiving stolen property, and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The case proceeded to a jury trial on July 18, 2018. After the prosecution rested, Appellant's counsel moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing the Commonwealth failed to establish jurisdiction. Following argument, the trial court denied the motion. At the conclusion of the defense case, counsel again moved for a judgment of acquittal and the trial court again denied the motion.

         Following deliberations, the jury found Appellant guilty of receiving stolen property but acquitted him on the theft charges. The trial court sentenced Appellant to serve one to five years in a state correctional facility and gave him credit for time served totaling 246 days. Appellant filed a post- sentence motion, which the trial court denied. This timely appeal followed. Both Appellant and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

         Appellant asks us to consider one issue in this appeal:

Whether the trial court erroneously denied Appellant's motion for judgment of acquittal that asserted the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction once the prosecution failed to establish the locus of the criminal act.

Appellant's Brief at 5.[1]

         As a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction, Appellant presents a question of law for which our standard of review is de novo. Commonwealth v. Bethea, 828 A.2d 1066, 1071 n.5 (Pa. 2003). The scope of our review is plenary. Id.

As this Court recently noted:
Subject matter jurisdiction "relates to the competency of the individual court . . . to determine controversies of the general class to which a particular case belongs." Green Acres Rehab. & Nursing Ctr. v. Sullivan, 113 A.3d 1261, 1268 (Pa. Super. 2015). "The want of jurisdiction over the subject matter may be questioned at any time. It may be questioned either in the trial court, before or after judgment, or for the first time in an appellate court, and it is fatal at any stage of the proceedings, even when collaterally involved . . .." In re Patterson's Estate, 341 Pa. 177, 19 A.2d 165, 166 (1941). Moreover, it is "well settled that a judgment or decree rendered by a court which lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter or of the person is null and void . . .." Com. ex rel. Howard v. Howard, 138 Pa. Super. 505, 10 A.2d 779, 781 (1940). The question of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time, by any party, or by the court sua sponte. Grimm v. Grimm, 149 A.3d 77, 82 (Pa. Super. 2016).

Strasburg Scooters, LLC v. Strasburg Rail Road, Inc., 210 A.3d 1064, 1067-68 (Pa. Super. 2019).

         In accordance with our Crimes Code, "a person may be convicted under the law of this Commonwealth of an offense committed by his own conduct [if] the conduct which is an element of the offense or the result which is such an element occurs within this Commonwealth." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 102(a)(1) (emphasis added). Here, Appellant was convicted of the sole charge of receiving stolen property. The offense of "receiving stolen property" is defined as follows: "A person is guilty of theft if he intentionally receives, retains, or disposes of movable property of another knowing that it has been stolen, or believing that it has probably been stolen, unless the property is received, retained, or disposed with intent to restore it to the owner." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3925(a). "As used in this section the word 'receiving' means acquiring possession, control or title, or lending on the security of the property." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3925(b).

         Here, we have the unusual situation in which Appellant acknowledged in a cell phone conversation with Mr. Munoz that he took and later sold Mr. Munoz's tools. However, nowhere in the testimony presented at trial is there any indication that Appellant or the tools were within the Commonwealth when Appellant "received, retained, or disposed" the tools. Specifically, there was no testimony as to the location of Mr. Munoz's construction company or the location of his truck when Mr. Munoz discovered that tools were missing. The testimony from Mr. Munoz revealed only that he arrived "at work" on October 31 and noticed that tools were missing from his truck. He later returned to his residence, which we acknowledge was located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. However, we do not know the location from which Mr. Munoz returned to his residence. From his Berks County residence, Mr. Munoz contacted the police to report his tools were stolen. It was at the Berks County residence that Mr. Munoz showed the officers where the tools "were supposed to be" inside his truck. From the residence, he contacted Appellant by phone. However, the record is silent as to where Appellant was located when he spoke with Mr. Munoz.

         In its brief, the Commonwealth concedes:

The Commonwealth acknowledges, as it must, that the record from trial is silent as to the location where the theft occurred, the location of the unlawful disposition of the property to a third party, the location where the property was last seen prior to being stolen, the location of the truck at the moment the victim discovered his tools were missing, and [Appellant's] physical location when he confessed by telephone.

         Commonwealth Brief at 9. Despite the lack of any evidence that any "conduct which is an element of the offense . . . occur[red] within this Commonwealth," as required for jurisdiction under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 102(a)(1), the Commonwealth asserts, "Nevertheless, the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction because [Appellant] communicated his ability and intent to restore the property to the victim in Pennsylvania and subsequently failed to do so. Id. We cannot agree. The fact that Mr. Munoz was at his Pennsylvania residence when he spoke with Appellant by phone about the stolen ...


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