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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Announces New Rule to Allow IAC Claims for Fine-Only Sentences

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania announced a new rule allowing post-sentencing motions raising ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claims where only a fine but no prison or probationary time is imposed.

After being convicted by a jury and sentenced to pay restitution and a fine, Edward Delgros filed a post-sentencing motion raising IAC claims. The trial court, however, ruled that Delgros was not entitled to relief because his IAC claims could only be raised under the Post Conviction Review Act (“PCRA”), despite not being able to use the PCRA since he was not sentenced to time in custody. Delgros appealed.

Delgros pointed out to the superior court on appeal that he had no avenue to raise his IAC claims, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Commonwealth v. Holmes, 79 A.3d 562 (Pa. 2013), left open an option for review where “good cause” is shown. The court, though, disagreed and ruled that the Holmes exception applied only to petitioners eligible to file under the PCRA, which requires that a petitioner is “currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, probation, or parole.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to address whether a person sentenced to a fine may raise IAC claims in a post-sentencing motion.

Ordinarily, IAC claims must be raised in PCRA proceedings. Commonwealth v. Grant, 813 A.2d 726 (Pa. 2002). This is because a PCRA proceeding allows the trial court to develop the record regarding the claims and because a court of appeals has no authority to review issues outside the existing record.

However, in Holmes, the Supreme Court created two exceptions to this rule. First, IAC claims may be addressed outside of PCRA proceedings where the claim is apparent on the record and immediate resolution of the claim would serve “the interest of justice.” Second, and applicable to Delgros, an IAC claim can be addressed on appeal or post-sentencing motion if there is good cause, and the petitioner waives his right to later PCRA review.

Here, Delgros could never satisfy the PCRA’s custody requirements, the Court said. But that did not mean his IAC claims were barred. An IAC claim is not a “collateral” claim merely because it alleges ineffective assistance of counsel that is normally raised on PCRA review, the Court said.

Instead, a claim is “collateral” when it is raised after the direct appeal has concluded (or time to appeal has expired) and is not limited to only PCRA review. Therefore, when a defendant is ineligible for PCRA review, the “interests of justice” allow an IAC claim in a post-sentencing motion, the Court held. Trial courts must “err on the side of caution” to protect a person’s constitutional rights.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the superior court and remanded to the trial court for consideration of Delgros’ post-sentence IAC claims. See: Commonwealth v. Delgros, 183 A.3d 352 (Pa. 2018). 

 

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