Com. v. Thomas

Decision Date31 December 2002
Citation814 A.2d 754
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Catherine Glovak THOMAS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court

J. Lauson Cashdollar, Beaver, for appellant.

Dale M. Fouse, Asst. Dist. Atty., Beaver, for Com., appellee.

Before: STEVENS, J., KLEIN, J., and CERCONE, P.J.E.

CERCONE, P.J.E.:

¶ 1 Appellant, Catherine Glovak Thomas, appeals from the order of the Trial Court dismissing her petition which sought the scheduling of a new hearing on her appeal from a summary conviction. After review, we reverse and remand for a new trial de novo.

¶ 2 The Trial Court has set forth some of the relevant factual and procedural history of this case in its opinion as follows:

On March 22, 2001, the [Appellant] was cited with a summary offense, ... Cruelty to Animals, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5511[(c)].1 [Appellant] was found guilty on April 17, 2001 at a hearing before a District Justice and sentenced to pay costs, a fine in the amount of $750.00 and undergo imprisonment for a period of sixty (60) days. She subsequently filed a Summary Appeal. The Summary Appeal hearing took place on November 29, 2001. Counsel [from the Public Defender's Office] appeared for the [Appellant], but [Appellant] failed to appear, and the Appeal was dismissed and remanded to the District Justice for execution of sentence.... [Appellant] obtained new counsel, who filed a "Petition to Strike or Withdraw Order and Reset Matter for Hearing" [claiming that she never received notice of the Summary Appeal hearing.] On December 6, 2001, the [Trial] Court suspended the execution of sentence and scheduled a Hearing and Argument for December 27, 2001. [The hearing was continued until January 3, 2002.] At the hearing on January 3, 2002, the Commonwealth and the [Appellant] were given an opportunity to present witnesses and evidence concerning the mailing and receipt of the notice of the Summary Appeal hearing.

Trial Court Opinion, filed 3/22/2002, at 1-2.

¶ 3 At the January 3, 2002 hearing on Appellant's petition, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of an employee of the Beaver County Court Administrator's Office who was responsible for preparing and mailing summary appeal hearing notices. She testified generally as to the standard practices and procedures in Beaver County which existed for the preparation and mailing of such notices. N.T. Hearing, 1/3/2002, at 10-29. An employee of the Beaver County Courthouse mailroom also testified to the general procedures for receiving and mailing materials from other courthouse offices, and the procedures for handling returned letters. Id. at 62-70.

¶ 4 A notice of summary appeal hearing dated October 31, 2001, but which did not bear an official timestamp, was present in the Clerk of Courts' file and a copy of this notice was attached to the petition filed in this matter and admitted at the hearing as Exhibit C. This notice was addressed to a "Thomas Glovak Catherine" at 1119 Ninth Avenue, Beaver Falls, rear. See Petition filed 12/6/2001, Exhibit C. There is no written indication on this notice as to when or if it had ever been mailed.

¶ 5 Appellant's public defender testified at the January 3, 2002 hearing as well. He recounted that he had received a notice of the summary appeal hearing through the interoffice mail system of the Beaver County Courthouse. He acknowledged that his office does not inform clients such as Appellant of the time and place set for their summary appeal hearings. Id. at 59. Although counsel was present at the time of the hearing on November 29, 2001, when his client did not appear he did not present a defense, and the judge presiding over the hearing did not take evidence, but rather "comments were made for the record... and the matter was disposed of." Id. at 58-59.

¶ 6 Appellant herself testified at the January 3, 2002 hearing. She recounted that at the time of the summary appeal hearing there were two (2) houses located at 1119 Ninth Avenue, Beaver Falls. Id. at 30, 48. As Appellant's house was located behind the other house, her house had the mailing address 1119 Ninth Avenue, rear. Id. at 30. Appellant testified to having previous difficulties with the person who lived in the house in front of hers, who had allegedly stolen things from her yard. Id. at 31. She also related that she had had considerable problems receiving her Social Security checks at that address for over a year. Since she had not received some of her checks, she had brought the matter to her postmaster's attention. Id. at 36. As a result of her difficulty in receiving the checks, she had to have them directly deposited into her bank account. Id. at 36. Additionally, Appellant attempted to offer other testimony that, while living at that address, she had not received a notice to appear as a witness in another criminal proceeding held in the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, even though it had also been mailed to her at that address; however, the Trial Court disallowed that testimony as "too speculative." Id. at 38.

¶ 7 Appellant recalled that she had filed her appeal from her summary conviction on April 25, 2001, and, although she was told that a public defender would represent her, she was never contacted by anyone from the public defender's office. Id. at 32. She testified that after filing the appeal she called the Clerk of Courts office at the courthouse several times to inquire when her hearing was to be held. Id. at 33. Each time she was told that the hearing was not scheduled. Id. Appellant stated that she never, at any time, received any notice in the mail informing her that she was to appear on November 29, 2001, for the appeal hearing. Id. at 34. Appellant only learned of the hearing, which was held in her absence, by reading about it in the local newspaper the day after it had taken place. Id. at 35.

¶ 8 Immediately after reading about the hearing in the newspaper, she went over to the courthouse and contacted the public defender's office and district attorney's office and informed them that she had never received notice of the hearing. Id. at 35. She then sought private counsel who promptly filed the petition to reset the matter for another summary appeal hearing.

¶ 9 After consideration of the testimony taken at the January 3, 2002 hearing, the Trial Court dismissed Appellant's petition by order docketed January 29, 2002. In support of its order, the Trial Court made the following specific findings of fact:

[T]he Commonwealth presented convincing evidence that the notice was mailed in accordance with the standard mailing procedures of the Court Administrator's Office and that, therefore, a presumption of receipt of notice of the Summary Appeal hearing is established. The [Trial] Court also found that the [Appellant] merely asserted lack of receipt of the notice and did not present adequate evidence to rebut the presumption of notice being received and, furthermore, that the Appellant was not prejudiced in any way by her absence since she was represented by counsel at the Summary Appeal hearing.

Trial Court Opinion, supra, at 2. The Trial Court then remanded the case to the District Justice for imposition of sentence. This timely appeal followed.

¶ 10 On appeal to our Court Appellant raises three (3) issues for our consideration:

1. Whether the trial court erred in determining that the Commonwealth had met the evidentiary predicate necessary for the application of the common law "mailbox rule."
2. Whether the trial court erred in determining that Appellant had not rebutted the presumption that she had received notice of her hearing.
3. Whether Appellant's right to due process under the Fifth Amendment was violated when the trial court refused to allow her to present relevant testimony to rebut the presumption that she had received notice of her hearing.

Appellant's Brief at 4.

¶ 11 We conclude that Appellant's first issue is meritorious. With respect to that issue, Appellant argues that the Trial Court erred in applying the "mailbox rule" presumption of receipt. Specifically Appellant argues that the application of this presumption in this case required that the Commonwealth have provided proof that the notice of Appellant's summary hearing date was properly mailed. This, Appellant claims the Commonwealth failed to do. After careful review of the record in this matter, we are compelled to agree.

¶ 12 In reviewing Appellant's claim, we are guided by the principle that whenever "the evidence supports the factual findings of the trial court, we are bound by such findings [,and] we may reverse only if the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are erroneous." Commonwealth v. Russell, 445 Pa.Super. 510, 665 A.2d 1239, 1242 (1995), appeal denied, 544 Pa. 628, 675 A.2d 1246 (1996). It is clear, however, that "this Court is only bound by a trial court's factual findings if they are supported by the record." Commonwealth v. Davies, 342 Pa.Super. 318, 492 A.2d 1139, 1144 (1985).

¶ 13 The venerable common law "mailbox rule" has long been the law of this Commonwealth. This evidentiary rule, succinctly stated, provides that "the depositing in the post office of a properly addressed letter with prepaid postage raises a natural presumption, founded in common experience, that it reached its destination by due course of mail." In re Cameron's Estate, 388 Pa. 25, 130 A.2d 173, 177 (1957); Beeman v. Supreme Lodge, 215 Pa. 627, 64 A. 792 (1906). As the Supreme Court has noted: "The overwhelming weight of statistics clearly indicates that letters properly mailed and deposited in the post office are received by the addressees." Meierdierck v. Miller, 394 Pa. 484, 147 A.2d 406, 408 (1959). Thus, "evidence that a letter has been mailed will ordinarily be sufficient to permit a jury to find that the letter was in fact received by the party to whom it was addressed." Shafer v. A.I.T.S., 285 Pa.Super. 490, 428 A.2d 152, 156 (1981) (citing Berkowitz v....

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