Six Hundred Words About Pennsylvania’s Rule 600

The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 600 considers the issue of speedy trials, and places a limit on when the Commonwealth can prosecute prior to dismissal for violation of your right to a speedy trial.

Right to a Speedy Trial:

The Sixth Amendment enumerates rights in criminal procedure, including the right to a speedy trial (and this right was imposed upon the Commonwealth through the Fourteenth Amendment). The speedy trial provision means that a person, who is accused of a crime and filed against in court, has a right to a quick adjudication. The speed that is required does depend in part on the crime committed and other factors.

The U.S. Supreme Court set out a test of four factors, which determine whether the right to a speedy trial was violated.

  1. Length of delay- the passing of more than 365 days from the date of the indictment raises a presumption of prejudice
  2. Reason for the delay- the reason for the government’s delay on the trial is to be taken into account
  3. Time and manner which the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial- the defendant has the burden of challenging the violation
  4. The degree of negative effect the delay has had on the defendant and his case

Pennsylvania’s Rule 600

The Commonwealth largely follows the federal right to a speedy trial. The right is addressed by Rule 600. The Rule provides that a defendant is entitled to have trial within 180 days, if he or she is incarcerated, or within 365 days if the person is on bail. If the person is facing a new trial because of an appeal or a defect in the previous trial, then the count of days is 120. The date the time begins to run is the day the complaint is filed by the prosecution. If the case was transferred from juvenile court then the date to begin counting is the date of transfer.

Certain time is excluded from the count of days:

–          The period between filing the complaint and actually apprehending the defendant if the defendant could not be found

–          Any period in which the defendant waives his right to a speedy trial

–          Any period in which delay is caused by unavailability of the defendant or the defendant’s attorney

–          Any period of time that was given due to a motion filed by the defendant’s attorney

The count of days ends on the day which the defendant pleads guilty/nolo contendere, or when the judge calls the case to trial.

When the count of days exceeds 365, the defendant may apply to the court to have the charges dismissed with prejudice. This will precipitate a hearing in court.

The court looks at whether the Commonwealth was diligent in its preparation for trial. If the court finds that the delay was beyond the Commonwealth’s control and that the defendant has not been prejudiced, then a trial date will be set and the case will proceed to trial.

If the court determines that the Commonwealth was not diligent in attempting to prepare for trial or that the Commonwealth was purposefully delaying in order to prejudice the defendant, then the court will dismiss all charges and let the defendant go free.

If you or someone you know, is facing a criminal charge and you feel there may be a violation of your constitutional right to a speedy trial, you should contact your attorney. You should not wait until appeal to address this violation.  If you are unrepresented, contact us for more information and to discuss a possible violation.

What is a Seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution mimics this protection. We have discussed the basic tenants of what comprises a search, but what is a seizure?

The most basic definition of a seizure is when government meaningfully interferes with an individual’s possessory property rights or liberty. So in order to have a seizure of a person or property, there must be a meaningful interference with a person’s property or with their liberty.

What constitutes a “meaningful” interference is a fact based question. Each case which challenges the interference with property rights will have to look at cases with similar fact patterns and determine whether the court would find that interference meaningful.

For example, an additional barrel of chemicals loaded onto your truck is not a meaningful interference with your property rights. However, a stop of your vehicle without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrongdoing is a meaningful interference. Any restraint on a person’s liberty by a person of authority is a seizure, and sometimes that’s lawful, and sometimes its not.

Just being a seizure isn’t enough to be objectionable in court. The protection extends only to unreasonable seizures. So the question really is: what makes a seizure unreasonable? There is a three part test the United States Supreme Court developed to evaluate reasonableness.

  1. The gravity of the public interest which will be served by the seizure
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances public interest
  3. How greatly the seizure interferes with personal liberties

Again, this is a fact based test. Each case is going to be looked at individually, although both Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court have stated that in order to pass the test, the seizure must begin with a minimum of reasonable suspicion. That is, the officers must have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. This suspicion must be particularized such that it can be spoken by an officer and must be individualized such that the officer can point to one or maybe two people or objects that are suspicious.

This is a general idea of the law defining your right against unreasonable seizure. Talk to your attorney today about the evidence against you, and whether it may have been a product of an unreasonable search or seizure.  Even if you have challenged the evidence at trial for being unreasonably seized, there still may be an opportunity to appeal and get the evidence removed in a new trial.

You deserve every opportunity for a great defense.

Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)

The PCRA is an indirect method of appeal in criminal cases. A direct appeal is when a criminal case is appealed from the Court of Common Pleas, where the accused lost the case, and wants to challenge some aspect of it. For more on direct appeals, read my post here. An indirect appeal in a PCRA allows the person to have the case reconsidered when a direct appeal to the Superior Court has been denied.

The PCRA must be filed within one year of the denial of the final direct appeal, or after the conviction if the defendant chooses not to use direct appeals. The one year rule does have some exceptions. The basic exceptions include: where counsel effectively abandons the defendant in the PCRA process, where the petition is an extension of a previously filed petition that was within the one year limit, where the government blocked the petition in some manner, where the new evidence could not have been known within the one year limit, and finally, where the court has determined that constitutional rights are such that the extension must be given.

PCRA is limited on its grounds for appeal. The full text of the act can be read here, but I will summarize it briefly. Under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9541 et seq, you may only begin the process for the PCRA if your conviction or sentence resulted from:

  • A violation of the Constitution of Pennsylvania or of the United states, or of the laws of the United States, and the violation occurred under circumstances which so undermined the process that no reliable adjudication of truth could have taken place
  • There was ineffective assistance of counsel such that no reliable determination of truth could have taken place
  • A plea of guilty was gotten under circumstances which make it likely that the defendant was induced to falsely make the statement and the defendant is innocent
  • Government officials wrongly obstructed the defendant’s right to appeal where an issue for appeal was present and capable of being appealed
  • New evidence has come to light which would have changed the outcome of the trial
  • A sentence was imposed which was greater than the lawful maximum
  • The court proceeding took place in a tribunal which did not have jurisdiction

Additionally, the statute requires that the allegation in the petition has not been previously litigated in court (it is a new issue) and it has not been waived by a failure to raise the issue (you didn’t bring it up and you were only permitted to bring it up at a certain point of the proceeding). The failure to litigate the issue cannot be the result of a rational or strategic move by the defendant’s attorney at trial.

You may notice the phrase “reliable adjudication of the truth” or “reliable determination of the truth.” These phrases are synonymous and mean that, because of what happened at trial, the facts or process was so distorted that no one could have discovered the truth. The courts have stated that the issue must go directly to the truth-determining process. (Commonwealth v. Bennett, 2007).

Another thing to mention is the process that a person must be given for the court to have properly reviewed the PCRA claim. Although the amount of due process required is less stringent than at trial, a defendant who petitions is still entitled to present his or her claims in a meaningful time and have them considered in a meaningful manner.

A petition for post-conviction relief must conform to certain processes and is subject to parameters defined by statute and the court. When you consider a PCRA, you also need to consider what attorney you will hire, and find one with the experience and the dedication to see the petition through. Failure to obtain the right counsel can result in the denial of your petition.

Call Shannon K. McDonald to discuss your potential PCRA petition today.