PA SUPREME COURT: STATUTE ALLOWING EXPERT WITNESS TESTIMONY REGARDING VICTIM RESPONSES & BEHAVIORS IS NOT UNCONSTITUTIONAL
The PA Supreme Court has decided, in the case of Commonwealth v. Olivo, No. 127 MAP 2014 (November 18, 2015), that it was improper for the trial court to suspend as unconstitutional a statute allowing the testimony of qualified expert witnesses regarding specific types of victim responses and victim behaviors in criminal proceedings related to sexual offenses.
On July 26, 2013, four days prior to the scheduled start of trial involving sexual offenses, the Defendant, Olivo, presented a motion in limine to prevent the Commonwealth from presenting expert testimony pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 5920 regarding child victim responses to sexual violence. Section 5920 provides, in part, that “if qualified as an expert, [a] witness may testify to facts and opinions regarding specific types of victim responses and victim behaviors [but, that t]he witness’s opinion regarding the credibility of any other witness, including the victim, shall not be admissible.
The trial court granted Olivo’s motion in limine to bar the expert testimony regarding child victim responses and behaviors offered by the Commonwealth and suspended as unconstitutional the statute allowing expert testimony regarding victims’ responses to sexual violence. The trial court concluded that Section 5920 infringed upon the PA Supreme Court’s exclusive control over judicial procedures pursuant to the Pennsylvania Constitution and previous case law which held that the admission of expert testimony on child victim response and behaviors “would violate the presumption of innocence offered a defendant in every jury trial and notions of fundamental fairness inherent in due process.” Additionally, the trial court opined that the proper admission of evidence was solely in the province of the PA Supreme Court pursuant to the PA Constitution.
The Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal in September 2013 and the matter ultimately came before the PA Supreme Court by way of direct review of the trial court’s decision to suspend a statute as unconstitutional.
Whether Section 5920’s provision allowing for expert testimony regarding victim responses to sexual assaults violates the PA Supreme Court’s exclusive constitutional power to prescribe general rules governing practice, procedure and the conduct of all courts under Article V, Section 10(c) of the Pennsylvania Constitution?
Section 5920 does not infringe on the PA Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to govern the procedures of the courts because it is substantive in nature, not procedural. Accordingly, the trial court’s decision was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings.
What follows is a summary of the PA Supreme Court’s reasoning in this matter.
A legislative enactment enjoys the presumption of constitutionality. A party challenging a legislative action bears the heavy burden of demonstrating that the statute “clearly, palpably, and plainly violates the constitution.” Here, the PA Supreme Court concluded that Section 5920 does not constitute an impermissible procedural rule but rather is a proper exercise of legislative authority to enact a rule of evidence.
In 1968, the PA Supreme Court’s authority over procedural rulemaking gained constitutional imprimatur through the adoption of Article V of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Article V vests in that Court general supervisory and administrative authority over all the courts.
In considering challenges to legislative acts, the Court stated that the threshold inquiry in determining whether a particular statute violates Article V, Section 10(c), is whether the statute is procedural or substantive in nature. Substantive law is that part of the law that creates, defines and regulates rights, while procedural laws are those that address methods by which rights are enforced.
In a similar separation of powers challenge to Section 5920, the Superior Court concluded that Section 5920 is really a rule regarding the admissibility of evidence, not a procedural rule. Furthermore, the Superior Court rejected claims that Section 5920 conflicted with previous case law and violated the PA Supreme Court’s constitutional authority over procedural rules.
Citing the Superior Court’s previous analysis, the PA Supreme Court in the instant case concluded that Section 5920 is clearly a rule of evidence and can be governed by statute. Additionally, they deemed it substantive rather than procedural as it permits both parties to present experts to “testify to facts and opinions regarding specific types of victim responses and victim behaviors.” The statute does not dictate how the evidence is presented. Accordingly the Court held that Section 5920 is a substantive rule of evidence that does not violate their Article V, Section 10(c) authority over procedural rules.
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