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Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief

A defendant appealed from the February 23, 2016 order entered in the Greene County Court of Common Pleas, denying his petitions filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA“). This month, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the judgment.

On December 3, 2013, the defendant pled guilty to theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy to commit theft, recklessly endangering another person, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, aggravated assault by vehicle, DUI, and various summary offenses. On February 13, 2014, the trial court sentenced him to an aggregate term of six to 17 years’ imprisonment.

On March 10, 2014, the defendant filed a timely pro se PCRA petition. The PCRA court appointed counsel, who filed an amended petition. On January 12, 2016, the PCRA court held an evidentiary hearing. On February 23, 2016, the PCRA court denied the petition. The defendant filed timely notices of appeal.

The defendant raised the following issue on appeal:  whether the PCRA court erred in dismissing his petition when the record supported his claim of ineffectiveness. He maintained his trial counsel was ineffective for causing him to enter unknowing, unwilling, and unintelligent guilty pleas based on assurances the trial court would give him a mitigated sentence based on a mental health evaluation. He also argued, based on trial counsel’s testimony at the PCRA hearing, that his guilty pleas were involuntary because counsel informed him that he was acting as standby counsel.

The defendant claimed he would not have pled guilty if counsel had not told him he would receive a mental health evaluation, which would have been submitted to the trial court as mitigating evidence. But at the guilty plea hearing, the Pennsylvania Superior Court explained, the defendant stated that he was pleading guilty of his own free will, that he was not forced to plead guilty, and that he received no threats or promises in exchange for his pleas. He further testified that he understood that the trial court had discretion over the sentence imposed. At no point did the defendant or his counsel mention a mental health evaluation. In addition, the PCRA court credited the PCRA hearing testimony of trial counsel, noting that trial counsel testified that he had never in his career asked for a mental health evaluation prior to sentencing and, consistent with that practice, did not do so in this case. Furthermore, he did not recommend one to the defendant.

The appeals court therefore concluded that the PCRA court did not err in rejecting the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The record fully supported the trial court’s conclusion that trial counsel did not inform the defendant that he would receive a mental health evaluation. Accordingly, his claim was without merit.

On appeal, the defendant also argued that his pleas were involuntary because trial counsel believed he was standby counsel for the defendant. He concluded, based on trial counsel’s testimony, that trial counsel explained to him that he no longer represented him as counsel, and the defendant would be required to represent himself on the next day in trial. Faced with no other option, he entered a guilty plea.

But since the defendant raised this claim for the first time on appeal, the appeals court explained, he waived it. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (“Issues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal.”).

Furthermore, the court explained that even if the defendant had not waived the claim, it nonetheless lacked merit. He did not claim in his PCRA petition, in his amended PCRA petition, or at the PCRA hearing that he pled guilty because trial counsel told him that he was standby counsel and that the defendant would be trying the case pro se. Furthermore, at the guilty plea hearing, trial counsel participated in the hearing as counsel and conducted a thorough colloquy of the defendant. Although trial counsel testified at the PCRA hearing that he believed he was standby counsel at the time of the guilty plea, it was clear from the guilty plea transcript that he acted as counsel. Furthermore, there was no evidence to support the claim, made for the first time on appeal, that the defendant pled guilty because his trial counsel told him he would be acting as standby counsel.

For these reasons, the PCRA’s judgment was affirmed.

Hiring the right attorney can make all of the difference in the world, even if your case seems straightforward or you have no criminal record.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and can fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that your family and you can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you.

More Blog Posts:

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Upholds DUI Defendant’s License Suspension, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2017.

Superior Court Holds Pennsylvania DUI Appellant Received a Prompt Trial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, August 15, 2017.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Dismisses DUI Appeal as Untimely, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 19, 2017.