PA SUPERIOR COURT: ALL PUBLIC WELFARE CODE OFFENSES ARE SUBJECT TO 5 YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
The PA Superior Court, in an a matter of first impression, has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Vega-Reyes, No. 730 MDA 2014 (January 7, 2016), holding that the statute of limitations for all Public Welfare Code violations in PA is five years.
Agents of the Pennsylvania Office of Inspector General filed a private criminal complaint against Ms. Vega-Reyes on March 27, 2013, alleging that she committed welfare fraud under the PA Welfare Code, Section 481(a). According to that complaint, between 2008 and 2010, Ms. Vega-Reyes was receiving public welfare. During this time, Ms. Vega-Reyes met with a welfare case worker and failed to disclose that she was living with a legally responsible relative who was employed and earning income, a disqualifying factor for receiving benefits. Ms. Vega-Reyes also certified that she was told of ongoing reporting responsibilities and signed an affidavit acknowledging that she would report changes of household income, employment, or composition. As a result of this interview, Ms. Vega-Reyes received welfare benefits until July 31, 2010.
The complaint filed against Ms. Vega-Reyes alleged that she collected $20,375 in welfare benefits for which she was not eligible. After being charged, Ms. Vega-Reyes sought to have the welfare fraud charges that arose before March 27, 2009, dismissed because the alleged offenses occurred outside the four-year statute of limitations that, she believed, were applicable to her charges.
The trial court conducted a hearing on the statute of limitations issue and entered an order granting Ms. Vega-Reyes’ Motion. A week later, the trial court also issued a supplemental order precluding the introduction of evidence relating to the alleged violations that occurred before March 27, 2009. Thus, not only did the trial court dismiss various charges against Ms. Vega-Reyes, it also precluded introduction of evidence of her prior bad acts as evidence at her trial for the conduct that occurred after the March 27, 2009 date.
The Commonwealth timely appealed and the Superior Court, in a divided unpublished decision, affirmed the trial court. Thereafter, the Commonwealth sought en banc review which was granted by the Superior Court to address this issue of first impression.
Is the applicable statute of limitations for the Welfare Fraud offenses charged as a result of Defendant’s 2008-2010 alleged fraudulent conduct four (4) years as determined by the trial court or, five (5) years as argued by the Commonwealth?
The trial court erred and the correct statute of limitations to be applied for all Public Welfare Code violations is five (5) years.
At issue is the applicable statute of limitations. Pursuant to the Public Welfare Code, 62 P.S. § 481(d) provides a four-year statute of limitations for violations of 62 P.S. § 481(a). However, after the passage of 62 P.S. § 481, the General Assembly enacted 42 Pa.C.S. § 5552(b)(4) as part of the Judicial Code, providing that the “prosecution for any of the following offenses must be commenced within five years after it is committed.” Thereafter, it listed any offense charged “under the … the Public Welfare Code” as having a five year statute of limitation.
The parties do not dispute that the two statutes at issue are irreconcilably in conflict. Before 1982, offenses under the Public Welfare Code, except the crime in question, were subject to a two-year statute of limitations. The welfare fraud crime in question had a lengthier four-year limitation period. In April of 1982, the legislature amended the definition of welfare fraud violations, leaving the four-year limitation period intact. And, in December of 1982, the legislature enlarged the statute of limitations period for all Public Welfare Code offenses, including the crime at issue, to five years.
The Commonwealth contended that the later-enacted statute in the Judicial Code controls in this case and that the proper statute of limitations is five years. In contrast, Ms. Vega-Reyes asserted that the earlier statute in the Public Welfare Code is more specific and prevails over the later, general law.
The Superior Court was not persuaded by Ms. Vega-Reyes’ contention that a specific statute always prevails over a general limitation provision. Instead, the Court concluded that “a general provision that is enacted later prevails where it is the manifest intent of the legislature.”
The Superior Court noted that the general provision in this case was clearly enacted after the specific and the language of the general statute of limitations section at issue also indicates that the five-year statute of limitations will apply to any violation of the Public Welfare Code. The Superior Court therefore reasoned that this later enactment demonstrated the manifest intention of the General Assembly that the general provision is to prevail and the five-year statute of limitations is applicable to the instant offense.
Lastly, the Superior Court also noted that it would be nonsensical to conclude that the legislature intended to increase the two-year statute of limitations for all other Public Welfare Code offenses to five years but, not to also increase the lengthier four-year statute of limitations that originally applied in this case to five years as well.
Therefore, the Superior Court concluded that the statute of limitations for all Public Welfare Code violations is five years and, correspondingly, the supplemental order issued by the trial court precluding evidence of alleged conduct occurring before March 27, 2009 was abrogated as well.
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