PA SUPERIOR COURT: VIOLENT BEHAVIOR FOR WHICH YOU ARE BEING SENTENCED IS SUFFICIENT TO SHOW A “HISTORY” OF VIOLENT BEHAVIOR
The Pa. Superior Court has decided the case of Com. v. Cullen-Doyle, S., No. 1711 WDA 2014 (January 21, 2016), holding that a single act of Burglary for which a Defendant is being sentenced is sufficient to render the Defendant ineligible for the Risk Recidivism Reduction Incentive (RRRI) program.
On August 26, 2014, Cullen-Doyle pled guilty to five counts of criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary and one count of first-degree burglary. Thereafter, Cullen-Doyle’s attorney asked the trial court to consider Cullen-Doyle’s eligibility for sentencing pursuant to the RRRI Act.
The RRRI Act “seeks to create a program that ensures appropriate punishment for persons who commit crimes, encourages inmate participation in evidence-based programs that reduce the risks of future crime and ensures the openness and accountability of the criminal justice process while ensuring fairness to crime victims.” 61 Pa.C.S.A. § 4502. As part of achieving that aim, the RRRI Act requires the trial court to determine at the time of sentencing whether the defendant is an “eligible offender.” 61 Pa.C.S.A. § 4505(a). If the court finds the defendant to be an eligible offender, or if the prosecuting attorney waives the eligibility requirements under Section 4505(b), the trial court must calculate minimum and maximum sentences, and then impose the RRRI minimum sentence, which “shall be equal to three-fourths of the minimum sentence imposed when the minimum sentence is three years or less,” or “shall be equal to five-sixths of the minimum sentence if the minimum sentence is greater than three years.” Furthermore, if an eligible offender “successfully completes the program plan, maintains a good conduct record and continues to remain an eligible offender,” he or she may “be paroled on the RRRI minimum sentence date unless the Board determines that parole would present an unreasonable risk to public safety or that other specified conditions have not been satisfied.
In Cullen-Doyle’s case, the trial court found that Cullen-Doyle was not eligible for placement in the RRRI program because of his past history of violent behavior and sentenced him to three to six years’ imprisonment, followed by 15 years of probation. Cullen-Doyle thereafter appealed to challenge the trial court’s finding.
Whether a Defendant is eligible for the RRRI program where he is convicted of a single count of first-degree burglary and has no prior convictions demonstrating a history of present or past violent behavior?
The Superior Court held that a single conviction for first-degree burglary, an admittedly violent act under long-standing Pennsylvania law, is sufficient to establish a present history of violent behavior. The trial court therefore did not error in denying Cullen-Doyle’s request for sentencing under the RRRI Act.
Cullen-Doyle claimed on appeal that his lone conviction for one count of first-degree burglary (for which he was being sentenced by the trial court) did not demonstrate “a history of present or past violent behavior,” barring his eligibility under the RRRI Act.
In sum, the Superior Court stated that so long as the record reliably demonstrates an occurrence of violent behavior, a trial court does not abuse its discretion in rejecting an application to the RRRI program.
In analyzing the applicable law, the Superior Court focused on whether first-degree burglary was violent behavior and, if so, whether one act of first-degree burglary (for which the defendant was being sentence) was sufficient to show a history of violent behavior.
IS FIRST DEGREE BURGLARY “VIOLENT BEHAVIOR”?
Cullen-Doyle essentially conceded this issue, recognizing the fact that there was previous case law reflecting “Pennsylvania’s long-standing view of burglary as a violent crime, as well as the fact that first-degree burglary is treated distinctly, and more severely, under Pennsylvania law.” The Superior Court had no hesitancy in concluding a conviction for first-degree burglary constitutes violent behavior.
IS ONE ACT A “HISTORY OF PAST OR PRESENT VIOLENT BEHAVIOR”
The Superior Court next had to determine whether a single first-degree burglary conviction for which Cullen-Doyle was being sentenced constituted “a history of present or past violent behavior.”
Cullen-Doyle argued that although he may have committed a violent act, he has no “history” or sufficiently established record of violent behavior. Further, he argued that if the legislature intended to exclude all violent behavior offenses, it would have simply said so without using the words “history” or “present” or “past” in the RRRI statute.
The Superior Court noted the legislature’s conscious election to craft an inclusive, catchall provision that withholds RRRI treatment from individuals who have exhibited violent conduct. Moreover, the Superior Court stated this intent was “vividly demonstrated” in the legislature’s use of the word “behavior” rather than more specific terms such as “conviction,” “offense,” or “crime.” Therefore, the Court found nothing in the statute revealing an intent to limit the sentencing court’s consideration under this subsection to convictions.
Instead, the Superior Court concluded that the broad statutory language encompasses any violent behavior, regardless of criminal liability. And, the use of the phrase “present or past” to modify the term “violent behavior” logically (and functionally) equates to “all violent behavior” since there can be no other type of violent behavior than that which occurs either in the present or in the past.
Accordingly, because the RRRI statute does not distinguish between violent behaviors that take place in the past and those that occur in the present; both forms of violent conduct disqualify participation in the RRRI program.
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