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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Single Conviction for Non-Enumerated Crime of Violence Does Not Qualify as History of Violent Behavior Under RRRI Act

In January 2010, James Paul Finnecy was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on charges related to theft of a motor vehicle. He was also sentenced to two consecutive terms of 18 months’ probation for escape, identity theft, 10 counts of forgery, and one misdemeanor offense of resisting arrest in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 5104. In October 2011, he was released from custody and began serving his probation. After multiple probation violations, he was returned to prison in March 2014 but released again on five years’ probation in April 2014. In August of that year, he again violated probation. The following October, he was sentenced to an aggregate term of 12 and one-half to 25 years’ imprisonment on the charges of forgery and identity theft for which he had earlier received probation. At the time of his sentencing, the court found him ineligible for a sentence under the RRRI Act.

After Finnecy’s sentence was upheld on appeal, he filed a petition pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546 (“PCRA”). Finnecy alleged his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the sentencing court’s determination that he did not qualify for a sentence under the RRRI Act, resulting in an illegal sentence. The PCRA court dismissed the petition in part because the Superior Court had determined when deciding his direct appeal that his conviction for resisting arrest qualified as violent behavior under § 4503 of the RRRI Act.

Finnecy appealed the denial of his PCRA petition to the Superior Court, which affirmed in a divided opinion. In his dissent, Judge Eugene B. Strassburger reasoned that, in light of Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle, 164 A.3d 1239 (Pa. 2017), Finnecy’s one conviction for resisting arrest did not make him ineligible for sentencing under the RRRI Act. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed Finnecy an appeal to address the following question: Does a single, past conviction for a violent crime constitute a “history of present or past violent behavior” for purposes of the RRRI Act?

Before addressing the question, the Court first had to determine if the issue qualified as an illegal sentence to be eligible for relief under the PCRA. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9542. In Pennsylvania, a challenge to the court’s statutory authority to impose a particular sentence implicates the legality of the sentence. Commonwealth v. Foster, 17 A.3d 332 (Pa. 2011). Imposition of a sentence under the RRRI Act requires the court to determine if a defendant is eligible, and if so, “the court shall impose” a sentence under the RRRI Act. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756(b.1). Since the sentencing court lacks discretion to forgo imposing a sentence under the RRRI Act, a court’s incorrect determination regarding a defendant’s eligibility that results in a failure to impose a reduced sentence necessarily involves a challenge to the court’s authority to impose a particular sentence, the Court explained. In short, the Court ruled that Finnecy’s claim implicated sentence illegality.

The Court then addressed the question of whether one prior conviction for a crime demonstrating violent behavior, such as resisting arrest, constitutes a history of such behavior for purposes of the RRRI Act.

The purpose of statutory interpretation and construction is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, they are presumed to be the best indication of legislative intent.” Cullen-Doyle. But if the words of the statute are ambiguous, the court must determine the legislature’s intent by examining the occasion for the provision, the context in which it was passed, the mischief it was designed to remedy, and the object it sought to attain. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(c). Section 4503(1) through (5) sets forth the requirements to qualify for a RRRI Act sentence. Subsection (1) states: Does not demonstrate a history of present or past violent behavior. And subsections (2) through (5) enumerate specific crimes of conviction or pending crimes that disqualify a defendant. Resisting arrest is not among those enumerated crimes, the Court noted.

The Supreme Court determined in Cullen-Doyle that a “history of present or past violent behavior” is ambiguous because “history” most often involves past events or pattern of behavior. Consequently, in the present case, the Court turned to the legislative history to determine legislative intent.

The purpose of the RRRI Act is to “create a program that ensures appropriate punishment for persons who commit crimes, encourages inmate participation in evidence-based programs that reduce risks of future crime and ensures the openness and accountability of the criminal justice process while ensuring fairness to crime victims.” § 4502. Further, the Court stated that the phrase “history of present or past violent behavior” of § 4503 “evidences an intent to render ineligible individuals with ‘an established record or pattern of violent behavior.’” Because excluding offenders with a single present conviction for a crime of violence would exclude a significant number of offenders the RRRI Act intended to benefit, the Court held that a single conviction for a non-enumerated crime demonstrating violent behavior does not disqualify an offender from a RRRI Act sentence.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the Superior Court as to this issue and remanded for further proceedings. See: Commonwealth v. Finnecy, 249 A.3d 903 (Pa. 2021). 

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