Criminal Process

West Chester Criminal Defense Attorney Discusses Supreme Court Argument Regarding Life Sentences Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

The topic of juvenile offender sentencing has received national attention recently when the United States Supreme Court held arguments regarding the prospect of limiting the harshest of these juvenile punishments. This is particularly important to those in Pennsylvania, considering the state has the largest concentration of juvenile offenders who have been sentenced to life without parole in the nation. The eventual decision has implications that extend to not only juvenile offenders, but also those that provide legal counsel to them.

On March 20, 2012, the Court heard oral arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases involving lifers who were fourteen when they committed murder. A majority of the justices seemed ready to move this argument forward, but it is still unclear how far they are willing to go regarding setting limits of such punishments.

This revisiting of juvenile laws could have a profound effect on the approximately 470 prisoners in Pennsylvania serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. In forty years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has gone from holding a small handful of juvenile lifers with no possibility of release to holding the highest number in the country. Nationwide, the number stands at around 2,589. A reversal of current laws will allow for many of these inmates to be entitled to a resentencing hearing.

Even with having committed horrendous crimes, the prospect of a lifetime in prison for a juvenile, who may or may not have understood the severity of his/her actions, seems to be unjust and antithetical to the intentions of our justice system.  One example is that of a Pennsylvania juvenile, who at fourteen years-old, set fire to the house of friends whose mom would not let them play with her, killing two boys in the process. Homicide may not have been the intention, but the crime was so serious that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania tried her as an adult, where her charges would come with mandatory sentencing. She was eventually found guilty of arson, two counts of second-degree murder and causing or risking a catastrophe. That was in 1976, and the offender is still in prison to this day for the crimes she committed at fourteen years old.

Had the young fourteen year-old been facing the death penalty, she would have had the right to introduce mitigating evidence, according to a Supreme Court ruling the previous year, striking down mandatory death sentences as cruel and unusual punishment. However, no such right is given to defendants facing mandatory life sentences. In Pennsylvania, this meant that her age, severe mental problems, history of abuse and neglect, and, most critically, rehabilitative potential were not up for discussion.

At the heart of the Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs defense is the argument that regardless of the crime, fourteen is too young to be discarded as beyond help. Teenagers are impulsive, prone to risky actions and highly vulnerable to peer pressure, and the younger ones are still quite far from mental maturity. “At fourteen,” the Miller appeal argues, “the major transformation in brain structure that will result in a sophisticated system of circuitry between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, enabling adults to exercise cognitive control over their behavior, is barely underway.”

With this scientific understanding of the situation, the Supreme Court has made strides. In the recent hearings, the majority opinion in both cases were written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who said teenagers deserved more lenient treatment than adults because they are immature, impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure and able to change for the better over time. Bryan A. Stevenson, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, which represented both defendants in Tuesday’s arguments, said that logic should apply in at least some cases involving killings.

The United States Supreme Court should take the pragmatic and fair stance of not only prohibiting sentences of life without parole for offenders younger than fifteen, but barring the punishment for all juvenile offenders. This would allow both the juvenile in question and their juvenile criminal defense attorney to find a solution that allows for the offender an opportunity to prove that he/she may eventually be deemed fit to re-enter society, rather than just tossed in jail for life.

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Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney on the Proposal to Bring Back Indicting Grand Juries

Indicting Grand Juries in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia is currently in the process proposing one of the biggest overhauls to its court system since the 1970’s, when indicting grand juries (citizen juries tasked with reviewing evidence and bringing charges against those who allegedly committed crimes) were abolished to make for a more efficient court process. So what revolutionary new ideas do they have to help the court system? Former and current prosecutors are proposing that the state use indicting grand juries to avert witness intimidation and hold fugitives accountable. In essence, they are proposing a failed policy in order to help a struggling court system.

The new proposal permits a court to impanel an indicting grand jury in cases in which the state submits and ex parte motion to the judge alleging that witness intimidation has occurred or is likely to occur. If this happens, no preliminary hearing will be held. It will also allow trials in absentia, where the defendant can be tried without even being present.

Although witness intimidation and court absence is a problem that needs attention, this is an ill-advised proposal that will restrict the rights of individual citizens to a fair trial. This will effectively allow juries to trample on the defendants right to test eyewitnesses, which is a vital part of the criminal defense process. Both the defendants and criminal defense attorneys will be put at an immediate disadvantage if these proposals are enacted into law, by being unable to present their case properly.

The potential issues inherent in these proposals start with the actual implementation. These proposed rules are beyond the decision-making authority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, considering that they have an implication on substantive rights. According to Article V, Section 10(c) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, an individual is free from a prosecution commenced through an indicting grand jury. The Pennsylvania Legislature previously stripped Courts of the jurisdiction to provide for the initiation of proceedings through an indicting grand jury, thus effectively providing a substantive right of an accused to be free from indictment.

Secondly, the new rules are unnecessary because the criminal justice system already has processes in place to remedy the issues that the proposal seeks to address. Much of the push for these rule changes have come from independent experts and newspaper articles discussing specific instances, rather than a larger problem. The PA Supreme Court should never propose rules that substantively alter the rights of an accused and abolish a proceeding that has been integral to the criminal justice system, based solely on newspaper articles and independent opinions, particularly if these finding are isolated within a small area or single district.

Lastly, the proposed rules contain several procedural infirmities, which directly affect a citizen’s right to the effective representation of counsel. The rules would permit the state to forego a critical proceeding (preliminary hearing) simply by filing an ex parte motion with the judge, asserting that witness intimidation has occurred or may occur. The specific rule (556.2) does not provide for any burden of proof or require the state to present facts establishing a preponderance of evidence or clear and convincing evidence that witness intimidating occurred.

In addition, the rule’s specific wording effectively permits an individual to be indicted and forced to trial based on unchallenged testimony, hearsay testimony, and evidence that may be incompetent to establish a prima facie case that the accused was involved in some wrongdoing.

Pennsylvania will be in a worse position than before if they move forward and pass the new legislation. The rules attempt to abolish preliminary hearings, which are not only an opportunity to test eye witness testimony and the strength of the state’s case against the individual, but are also key in allowing a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney the ability to fairly and adequately develop an effective defense. Having the full capacity to argue your case and get to the bottom of what happened during an alleged criminal offense is paramount to protecting the rights of Pennsylvania citizens and these rule changes will have the opposite effect.

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Marijuana Usage among High School Seniors Reaches 30 Year Record “High;” West Chester Marijuana Crimes Attorney Michael Skinner Discusses Trend and Pennsylvania Marijuana Laws

According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF) released last week by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana usage among the nation’s high school teens has steadily increased over the past four years, with high school seniors hitting a 30 year record peak in 2011.  The findings come as a result after surveying 46,733 students at 400 public and private schools in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.  The study reported 50 percent of high school seniors having tried an illicit drug at some time, with this number being heavily influenced by the high amount of reported marijuana use.

More information specific for juvenile Pennsylvania marijuana crimes will be released later this spring when the Pennsylvania Youth Survey statistics are released.  Possession of marijuana in Pennsylvania is the most common marijuana related crime in the state, accounting for 79% of all marijuana related arrests in Pennsylvania during 2007.  Penalties associated with illegal possession of marijuana in Pennsylvania depend on several factors including the amount of marijuana found in possession, criminal history of the arrested person and whether that person had a “conscious dominion over the contraband.”

Commonwealth v. Davis, 444 Pa. 11 (1971) established that just simply being present at the scene of a crime involving a person or group of people in possession of marijuana does not provide sufficient evidence of proof that one has committed that crime; and therefore, a person cannot be held accountable for possession if that person does not have “conscious dominion over the contraband.”  Many states have similar “I didn’t know” laws but there are also limits to these such laws.  For instance, the fact of possession loses all persuasiveness if persons other than the accused had equal access to the drug.

Common punishments for Pennsylvania possession of marijuana charges heavily depend on the amount of drugs found.  The least serious being possession of 30 grams of Marijuana or less which Pennsylvania considers a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.  A person accused of possession of Marijuana with more than 30 grams is also still a misdemeanor but punishable by one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.  The more marijuana a person has in their possession and that is ultimately seized by authorities, the more susceptible a person also becomes to other charges such as intent to distribution or sale marijuana, which can have even greater penalties with more serious lasting effects.

Discrepancies and complexities associated with Georgia’s marijuana laws including possession of marijuana in Lancaster or Cultivation of Marijuana in West Chester can work for or against an individual arrested in Pennsylvania for a marijuana related crime.  It’s important to speak with a lawyer in your area about the specific details of your case if you have been arrested for a marijuana crime.  Hiring an attorney to create a defense for your case might ultimately help you avoid harsh repercussions such as a criminal record, large fines, difficulties getting the job you want due to commonly used background checks and youths accused of marijuana crimes may avoid problems gaining school loans and/or scholarships as well as other tuition assistance for higher education.

Chester County marijuana lawyer Michael Skinner represents men, women and minors accused of all types of Pennsylvania marijuana related crimes including possession of marijuana, marijuana trafficking in Pennsylvania and cultivation/grow house crimes throughout West Chester and surrounding areas within Chester County, Delaware County, Lancaster County and Montgomery County.  Call (267) 388-3476 to schedule a free consultation with West Chester criminal defense attorney Michael skinner.  The sooner you react to the charges against you, the better your chances become at fighting and having a strong enough defense to challenge the prosecutions efforts to penalize you with the harshest punishments.  Call Michael Skinner at Skinner Law Firm today.

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West Chester DUI Lawyer Michael Skinner Examines Increased DUI and DUID Arrests In Pennsylvania

 

The end of 2011 closed out a decade of extreme and tough efforts by the Pennsylvania State Police on protecting the state’s roads and highways from drivers impaired by drugs and/or alcohol.  In 2010, Pensylvania arrests for driving under the influence set a record number and the police’s ninth consecutive year in which the number of DUI arrests by state police increased.  The amount of DUI arrests throughout the state showed an increase of nearly 5 percent from 16,900 DUI arrests in 2009 to 17,695 in 2010.

According to Commissioner Frank Noonan, “Protecting the public is the highest priority for the Pennsylvania State Police.”   Noonan states, “Taking impaired drivers off the road is one of the best ways to keep our citizens safe.”

A report from the Pennsylvania State of Independence with statistics given by Pennsylvania State Police, showed a decrease in the number of alcohol-related crashes investigated by troopers from 4,625 in 2009 to 4,595 in 2010; while, 2011 showed an increase in drug and alcohol-related fatal crashes. Correspondingly, driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) in Pennsylvania increased in 2011, as well.

While police are continually on the look-out for drunk and other impaired drivers, many people who have been charged with a DUI in West Chester and other cities in Pennsylvania’s are unclear on the state’s DUI laws, or how a DUI can affect their futures.  Being arrested for DUI can happen to anyone, including doctors, lawyers, teachers and many other respectable professionals. No matter what you do for a living, a DUI arrest may potentially have severe effects on your career, education and/or personal life.

DUI convictions can result in a driver’s license suspension, suspended driving privileges, jail time, Installation of an ignition interlock device, alcohol highway safety course and fines starting at $300 to $5,000 for a first DUI in Pennsylvania, and depending on your Blood alcohol level (BAC).

Other common DUI charges include:

A DUI arrest is scary and has the power to harm many aspects of a person’s life, but there are steps one can take after being charged with a DUI to help protect his/her rights.  For certain first time offenders who are charged with driving under the influence in Pennsylvania, the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program may be available. In many cases, this program permits dismissal of the DUI charges so the alleged offender can petition to have their record expunged. The DUI ARD program usually lasts for six months.

Call (267) 388-3476 to set up a free consultation with an experience West Chester DUI lawyer or visit http://www.skinnerlawfirm.net to learn more about the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program and other alternative options you may have after receiving a DUI charge in West Chester and surrounding areas.

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Violent Crimes Attorney Michael J. Skinner Discusses Pennsylvania Armed Bank Robbery Laws and Punishments

Lamont Laprade, of Huntington, W.Va., was found guilty of robbing a bank at gunpoint in western Pennsylvania, Friday.  Authorities arrested Lamont Laprade as the getaway driver during a robbery and shooting of a teller at the Westmoreland Community Federal Credit Union, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in January 2010.  45-year-old David Mathis, of Crafton, was also accused of participating in the robbery and the violent crimes associated.  The accused crimes require a minimum of five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.  In Pennsylvania, a Judge may order restitution, and since it is an armed robbery case, he/she may rule that the criminal can no longer possess a firearm.

Sentencings for robberies vary greatly depending on several factors, particularly if the accused offended has a previous criminal record.  Robbery can be a felony of the first, second or third degree, and depending on severity of the degree, can result in maximum prison sentences of 20-25 year in federal prison. In this case, Laprade was found guilty of four counts of robbery; some of the charges are considered violent crimes in Pennsylvania.  Laprade was found guilty of several charges including bank robbery, armed robbery, conspiracy and using a firearm.  Crimes of violence, such as a weapons charge in West Chester, make the accused offender eligible for harsher sentencing.

Authorities say Laprade has a history of violent robberies with a weapon.  The armed robbery charge he faces could be a second degree felony offense under subsection (a)(1)(iv) of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701, which happens when the offender is accused of inflicting bodily injury upon another or threatens another with or intentionally puts him in fear.  He could also face a third degree robbery offenses under subsection (a)(1)(v) if the accused offender physically took or removed property from the person of another by force however slight.

Robbery, violent crimes, illegal possession of a weapon and/or a firearm are serious crimes that, if found guilty, could result in years of prison and damage a person’s future forever.  If you have been accused of one of these crimes or any other criminal offense in Pennsylvania, it is important to contact an experienced lawyer to help navigate you through the legal process and help you avoid the harshest punishments.  West Chester criminal defense attorney Michael J. Skinner of Skinner Law Firm, LLC has represented clients accused of misdemeanor and/or felony crimes since 2007.

Call (267) 388-3476 to set up a free detailed consultation discussing your case with an actual attorney.  The more information you have and getting an early start on creating a defense could ultimately help you reduce or even dismiss serious charges and aggressive sentencing; so, call now, even if you have not been charged but may be expecting a criminal charge.  Michael J. Skinner of Skinner Law Firm, LLC respects attorney-client confidentiality.  Skinner Law Firm, LLC accepts cases in Chester County, Lancaster County, Berks County, Delaware County and Montgomery County.

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The Long Wait on Death Row in Pennsylvania

Although Pennsylvania ranks high among states that impose death sentences, it ranks extremely low in actually carrying them out. There are currently 208 men and women on death row for an offense such as murder in the first degree, but no one has actually been executed since 1999. A whopping total of three people have been executed since death row was reinstated back in 1976.

Additionally, of the 391 capital convictions since 1976, at least 125 have been reversed. Most of these reversals have been as a result of an appeal and the sentences were reduced to life in prison. There were only a total of six complete exoneration’s.

Major blame in the amount of capital convictions has been placed on the quality of legal representation for poorer defendants. Overworked and underpaid public defenders are more likely to lose to a prosecutor who is pushing for a death penalty sentence and has less of a caseload but gets paid more in capital cases. However, because an inmate’s defense was underfunded and inadequate, many times they are granted new trials altogether that often lead to the lesser sentences.

Usually, once an inmate on death row exhausts their appeals and the governor signs the death warrant, they are executed. The reasoning behind the lack of actual executions has been focused on the appeal process and the refusal of liberal federal circuit court judges to sign off on death warrants to proceed with an execution.

There is a push to either fix or do away with the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Many in the state’s legal field feel that the lengthy time on death row is costing the state too much money and that it isn’t right for individuals to spend up to 30 years waiting to be put to death.

If an individual has been sentenced to death in a capital case in Pennsylvania, it is their right to file for an appeal, no matter what role politics may play in the judicial system. An experienced criminal defense attorney in West Chester will fight through the red tape to get an appeal heard and pushed through. Many innocent individuals are put to death each year because of faulty forensics, unreliable witnesses and inadequate legal representation. Filing for an appeal may potentially result in a new trial, which could produce a more favorable outcome.

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