By Burt Rose
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has issued a unanimous opinion in the matter of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Raymond E. HAUN, 2011 WL 5966320, No. 1 MAP 2011 (Nov. 30, 2011). This was an appeal from a ruling of the Superior Court at No. 1980 MDA 2008, Commonwealth v. Haun, 984 A.2d 557 (Pa.Super.2009), which reversed and remanded a PCRA order of the Centre County Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division, No. CP–14–CR–0001493–2004. Justice SAYLOR wrote the Opinion.
The question presented was whether a concession of guilt foreclosed access to review under the Post Conviction Relief Act. In effect, the Commonwealth asked that the Court revisit the rationale from its opinion in Commonwealth v. Lantzy, 736 A.2d 564 (1999) that a petitioner is not required to establish his innocence or demonstrate the merits of the issue or issues which would have been raised on appeal.
Here, Haun sought PCRA relief from a sentence that he contended was excessive. Haun did not contest his guilt.
The Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief, which Justice Saylor quoted as follows:
More than a decade ago, this Court firmly and unequivocally rejected the position asserted by the Commonwealth in this case, i .e., that only “innocent” persons may proceed by PCRA. It recognized “the legislative directive that the PCRA is intended to provide the sole means for obtaining collateral review and relief, encompassing all other common law rights and remedies, including habeas corpus.” This holding derived not only from the PCRA itself, but from the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of a right to direct appeal review of criminal convictions and sentences of all persons, not only those who are innocent. That construction of the PCRA was also essential to avoid the conclusion that the Legislature had impermissibly suspended the writ of habeas corpus, in violation of Article I, section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Appellant advances no argument at all that could justify overturning this Court’s consistent line of pertinent authority.
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This Court has twice held that the amended PCRA does not limit post-conviction relief to those who claim absolute innocence of the underlying offense, and has decided many other cases consistent with those precedents. While this Court certainly has the power and authority to overrule its own precedents when persuaded that it had formerly erred, the Commonwealth’s brief makes no persuasive argument for that exceptional result here, and none can be imagined.
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Our Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, from its very beginning, has promised that “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in case of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Pa. Const. art. I, § 14. See also 42 Pa.C.S. § 6501(a). It is expressly against that backdrop that this Court decided such cases as Chester, Lantzy and Dadario. In all of those cases, and many others, this Court has noted that the PCRA was intended to serve as a unitary scheme fulfilling, not repealing, the irrevocable promise of habeas corpus.
The Supreme Court agreed and therefore rejected the Commonwealth’s argument.
David R. Crowley, Esq. of the Centre County Public Defender’s Office represented Mr. Haun. Jules Epstein, Esq., Peter Goldberger, Esq. and Thomas M. Place, Esq. of Carlisle represented the PA Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as Amicus Curiae.