ACT OUT IN COURT AND PUNCH YOUR LAWYER AND YOU MIGHT WATCH THE REST OF YOUR TRIAL BY VIDEO-CONFERENCE
The PA Superior Court has recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Tejada, No. 403 MDA 2016 (April 26, 2017), holding that the trial court committed no error when it barred the defendant from physically attending his trial or a pre-trial hearing after he continued to act in a manner so disorderly, disruptive, and disrespectful of the court that his trial could not be carried on with him in the courtroom.
Tejada was charged with spitting in the face of a corrections officer who was attempting to remove him from the law library. Shortly before his trial was to begin, the parties appeared before the court during which time Tejada was acting in what could generally be described as a disruptive, contumacious, and stubbornly defiant manner. Tejada’s behavior escalated to the point that the judge informed him that if his behavior continued, he would be removed from the courtroom. The trial court then brought in the jury. During opening remarks, Tejada physically assaulted his lawyer and was thereafter removed from the courtroom. Counsel then moved for mistrial and asked to withdraw and both motions were granted. One week later, the judge recused and the matter was reassigned.
Prior to the second trial, a hearing was conducted by the new trial court via video-conference in order to give Tejada the opportunity to rehabilitate himself and demonstrate his ability to conduct himself appropriately in the courtroom. At this hearing, Tejada continued to display a disruptive demeanor and an inability to allow court proceedings to continue in his presence.
As a result of Tejada’s behavior at this hearing, the trial court refused to permit him to physically attend his jury selection or trial. However, the court arranged for his attendance at trial via video-conference. The jury ultimately found Tejada guilty after which time he filed this appeal, arguing that (1) the trial court erred in conducting his Jury Selection, Trial, and Sentencing via video-conferencing and (2) the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in sentencing him without benefit of Pre-Sentence Investigation?
COURT MAY PROHIBIT DEFENDANT FROM APPEARING AT HIS TRIAL IN PERSON
Tejada claimed that, notwithstanding his removal from the first trial, he should have been permitted to appear, in person, prior to the re-trial in an attempt to convince the judge that he was willing to behave. He suggested that the court was required to do so as a component of due process and the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Superior Court explained that there is a significant distinction between the forfeiture of the right to be present, which occurred following Tejada’s attack upon counsel, and the reclamation of that right. In essence, the Superior Court identified Tejada’s claim as involving the failure of the trial court to give him an adequate opportunity to demonstrate his rehabilitation and, therefore, attend his re-trial in person.
The Court noted that a basic constitutional right is the accused’s right to be present in the courtroom at every stage of his trial. This right comes from the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him[.]”
The US Supreme Court has previously identified removal from the courtroom as one mechanism to maintain decorum when a defendant conducts himself in a manner so disorderly, disruptive, and disrespectful of the court that his trial cannot be carried on with him in the courtroom. However, the Court further stated that there is a limitation upon that power and that, once lost, the right to be present can be reclaimed as soon as the defendant is willing to conduct himself consistently with the decorum and respect inherent in the concept of courts and judicial proceedings.
Tejada argued that since he has a constitutional right to be present for his trial, it follows that he has the right to physically appear at a hearing to regain the right once lost, either as a component of the Confrontation Clause right or as part of due process. However, the Superior Court disagreed on both counts.
First, the Superior Court found that the Confrontation Clause right did not extend to this situation since that right’s functional purpose is in ensuring a defendant an opportunity for cross-examination and, there was no cross-examination to be achieved at the hearing to regain his forfeited right.
Secondly, the Court held that due process does not mandate physical presence as an element of that hearing. The appellate court saw no reason to believe that Tejada’s physical presence would have made any difference to the reliability of the trial judge’s conclusion that Tejada was not rehabilitated.
Lastly, the Superior Court addressed the issue of whether the trial court’s employment of video-conferencing technology for that hearing was appropriate, holding that the PA Rules of Criminal Procedure relating to the “Use of Two-Way Simultaneous Audio-Visual Communication in Criminal Proceedings” did not preclude such use under the circumstances.
Accordingly, the Superior Court held that the trial court committed not error in striking a balance of Tejada’s constitutional rights against an obvious threat of violence, especially when the court permitted him to participate in his trial via video-conference despite his poor behavior.
FAILURE TO OBTAIN PRE-SENTENCE INVESTIGATION (PSI) REPORT
At his sentencing hearing, Tejada specifically objected to the lack of a PSI report at the sentencing hearing. Following his objection to the lack of a PSI report, the court immediately imposed sentence with no further discussion or input from the parties. Tejada appealed, arguing that the court did not state adequate reasons for dispensing with the report.
The Superior Court explained a trial judge is required to explain the reasons for dispensing with a PSI report when, as here, incarceration for one year or more is a possible sentence. Therefore, the trial judge in Tejada’s case was obligated to explain why it did not order a PSI report. For example, a trial court may sentence without the benefit of a PSI report if it possesses the necessary information from another source.
In this case, the Superior Court noted that while might have been possible that the trial judge already knew Tejada from prior contact, nothing in the record revealed the nature, quality, or extent of that knowledge. Accordingly, the Superior Court vacated Tejada’s sentence and remanded his case for further proceedings.
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