A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

seal_colorBy Burt Rose

Com. v. Lawrence JONES, Appellant, 859 WDA 2013, 2014 WL 2209090 (May 28, 2014): This was an appeal from a PCRA denial Order of Judge Machen of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division, CP–02–CR–0011852–2011. The Panel was composed of Judges FORD ELLIOTTOTT and WECHT. Judge Wecht wrote the Opinion; Judge Ford Elliott wrote a dissent.

Jones had plead guilty to second-degree indecent assault and corruption of minors. Under Megan’s Law at that time, only first-degree indecent assault incurred registration reporting obligations. At the time of the plea, the parties made no reference whatsoever to the imposition of any registration and reporting obligations under Megan’s Law, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 97919799.9, which governed sex offender reporting obligations. However, the defendant was soon advised that the law did apply to him and so began this litigation.

The trial court’s order dismissed this petition because it was filed under the Post–Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541, et seq., since the PCRA could not provide a basis for relief as the lower court had no jurisdiction under the Act. The Superior Court determined that the defendant would be deemed to be pursuing “a petition for specific performance of his plea agreement”, seeking relief from the Commonwealth’s alleged breach of his negotiatednolo contendere agreement, not a PCRA petition.


In footnote 4, Judge Wecht stated:

We consistently have held that it is the substance, rather than the form, of the filing that dictates how it must be considered. See, e.g.,Commonwealth v. Godschalk, 451 Pa.Super. 425, 679 A.2d 1295, 1296 n. 1 (Pa.Super.1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Hess, 489 Pa. 580, 414 A.2d 1043 (1980) (in petition, defendant requested habeas corpus relief, but petition was not titled as such; petition should be treated as habeas corpus petition); Fortune/Forsythe v. Fortune,352 Pa.Super. 547, 508 A.2d 1205 (Pa.Super.1986) (the substance rather than the form of a motion is controlling in determining procedural issues)).


The question the Court faced was whether the absence of any indication of an agreed-upon and affirmative step to avoid application of Megan’s Law when the defendant entered his plea required a different outcome than in Commonwealth v. Hainesworth,52 A.3d 444 (Pa.Super.2013) (en banc), where the Court granted relief from SORNA registration requirements for violation of a plea agreement.


The issue was the imposition of sex offender registration upon someone who had entered a plea that entailed no such requirement whatsoever. The Panel ruled that the terms of Jones’ negotiated plea bargain were fully articulated in the documentary and trial record; neither party to the negotiated plea could have anticipated the imposition of more severe sanctions or collateral obligations. Based upon this agreement, Jones sacrificed his fundamental constitutional rights, and he cannot fairly be denied the benefit of his bargain.


Therefore, the Court vacated the trial court’s order dismissing Jones’ amended PCRA petition, which was treated as a stand-alone petition for enforcement of his plea agreement. The Court thus directed specific performance of Jones’ plea bargain, which required that he be relieved from SORNA’s registration and reporting requirements.


Attorney Robert Staley Carey, Jr. represented Mr. Jones.

Click for Opinion 

Click for Dissenting Opinion by Judge Ford Elliot


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