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IN ORDER TO FLEE FROM APPREHENSION, TRIAL or PUNISHMENT, YOU MUST FIRST BE CHARGED or CONVICTED

In a matter of first impression, the Pa. Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Phillips, A., No. 1427 WDA 2014 (December 14, 2015), holding that in order to be convicted of the crime of Flight to Avoid Apprehension, Trial or Punishment, the Defendant must have first been charged with or convicted of a crime.

FACTS

Appellant was sentenced to fourteen to twenty-eight years incarceration after a jury found him guilty of robbery, aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit robbery, and flight to avoid apprehension.
The charges resulted from an incident where Appellant and others committed an armed robbery at the victim’s home after which Appellant and the others fled in a vehicle. Police made contact with the vehicle as it fled the scene and they pursued the vehicle, ultimately apprehending Appellant as he fled from the vehicle on foot.

The Commonwealth charged Appellant with robbery, aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit robbery, flight to avoid apprehension, criminal trespass, and resisting arrest. The jury acquitted Appellant of trespassing and resisting arrest, but found him guilty as to the remaining charges.

Appellant raised a number of issues on appeal although this blog focuses on the issue surrounding the Flight to Avoid Apprehension charge.

ISSUE

Was the evidence sufficient to support Appellant’s conviction for Flight to Avoid Apprehension where the Commonwealth presented no evidence to suggest that Appellant fled to avoid apprehension on a previous charge or conviction?

HOLDING

The Commonwealth did not prove that Appellant had been charged with a crime when he fled and the evidence was therefore insufficient to find him guilty of the aforementioned offense. Appellant’s judgment of sentence as to Flight to Avoid Apprehension is reversed.

REASONING

The crime of Flight to Avoid Apprehension, Trial or Punishment is defined as follows: A person who willfully conceals himself or moves or travels within or outside this Commonwealth with the intent to avoid apprehension, trial or punishment commits a felony of the third degree when the crime which he has been charged with or has been convicted of is a felony and commits a misdemeanor of the second degree when the crime which he has been charged with or has been convicted of is a misdemeanor.

Appellant and the Commonwealth disputed whether the statutory crime itself applies to a person who has not yet been charged with a crime when he flees from law enforcement.

Appellant argued that a plain reading of the statute indicates that the law criminalizes “the conduct of those individuals who flee to avoid standing trial or sentencing after they have already been charged or convicted.” He noted that criminal statutes are to be strictly construed and any ambiguity is to be resolved in favor of the accused. According to Appellant, the legislature’s usage of the phrase “has been charged” denoted that it intended to punish those who flee after having previously been charged with a crime.

The Superior Court concluded that the plain language of the pertinent portion of the statute requires that a person must have been charged with a crime. The Court stated that “this language is simply not ambiguous.” The Commonwealth failed to cite or point to a single Pennsylvania case in support of its interpretation. And, the Commonwealth’s reliance on a textually distinct federal statute was neither “persuasive or particularly instructive.”

Lastly, the Superior Court recognized that our legislature can distinguish between individuals charged with crimes and those who have yet to be charged and, since the Flight to Avoid Apprehension statute is plain on its face, it is the Commonwealth’s burden to prove that Appellant had already been charged with a crime when he fled.

Appellant’s judgment of sentence as to Flight to Avoid Apprehension was therefore reversed.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A27001-15o%20-%201024695165822524.pdf?cb=1

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