Commonwealth v. Collins, 1419 MDA 2021

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtCOLINS, J.
Citation2022 PA Super 195
Docket Number1419 MDA 2021,J-S16018-22
Decision Date18 November 2022

2022 PA Super 195



No. 1419 MDA 2021

No. J-S16018-22

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 18, 2022

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence Entered September 9, 2021 In the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-31-CR-0000227-2020.

Joseph D. Seletyn, Esq.




John William Collins appeals from the judgment of sentence of 15 days' incarceration and a fine of $600 after his non-jury conviction on two counts of harassment.[1] Upon careful review, we affirm.

This case involves a "wanted poster" and five letters that Collins authored and distributed through the United States Postal Service. The poster identifies the "wanted" man as Alan Hoffman, "an individual with whom [Collins] has apparently had a long-running dispute." Trial Court Opinion, 1/5/22, at 2.

The trial court described the poster, letters, and facts of this case as follows:

The posters were copies of the same document . . . on letter-size paper, featuring a copy of Mr. Hoffman's mug shot and basic booking information for a January 26, 2018 arrest for controlled substance DUI, next to which had been written: "I crossed a Billy goat with a pig. What did you get? See for yourself; it's got a goat face and smells like a pig. $500.00 reward to capture and put in a cage. Call nearest police agency for reward. Trying to impersonate a human being."
The letters were copies of the same package of documents consisting of: (1) a handwritten note stating the following: "Alan Goat-Face Hoffman, [street address] Three Springs, PA 17264 drives a yellow [car, which] is same color as he is."; and (2) five copies of a page from Mr. Hoffman's Bedford County Court of Common Pleas Court Summary.
* * *
The matter came before this Court for a bench trial on September 8, 2021 . . .
The Commonwealth's first witness was April Snyder, who, in late February of 2020, was employed as a clerk at the United States Post Office in Three Springs Borough, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. She was familiar with [Collins] as a customer at that location. Ms. Snyder initially received a report from one of her mail carriers that someone had put "flyers" in approximately 15 mailboxes along the mail carrier's route. The mail carrier removed the "flyers" from the mailboxes and brought them to Ms. Snyder.
[She] identified the "flyers" found by the mail carrier as being copies of the poster. Based on other information provided by the mail carrier, Ms. Snyder had reason to suspect [Collins] had placed the posters in the mailboxes, but she had no direct evidence. That changed a few days later when Ms. Snyder personally witnessed [Collins] enter the Three Springs Post Office and post something on the bulletin board. She went out to investigate, saw that it was another copy of the poster, and immediately took the poster down and threw it in the trash.
A few days after that, [Collins] came in to mail five letters. He had Ms. Snyder weigh them, and all five required
additional postage, which he paid. One of the letters was addressed to Steve Heester, who has a P.O. Box at the Three Springs Post Office along with his wife, Dee Heester.
Ms. Snyder processed the letter to Mr. Heester along with the other mail and placed it in the Heesters' box. Dee Heester came in to get their mail later that same day, and the letter instantly caught her attention, prompting her to hold it up for Ms. Snyder's attention and ask what it was. Mrs. Heester then opened it in front of Ms. Snyder, revealing the contents to be the letter. Ms. Snyder took possession of the letter from Mrs. Heester and intercepted the other four letters that had been mailed by [Collins] at the same time before they had been delivered.
Subsequent inspection revealed each one to be a copy of the letter as well. Ms. Snyder reported the incidents to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Pennsylvania State Police . . .
State Trooper Christopher Bourne investigated the incidents. He initially interviewed Mrs. Heester in response to a complaint she filed regarding the letter. He further interviewed Ms. Snyder, who provided him with the letters and posters (along with additional information regarding [Collins'] distribution of the posters). Trooper Bourne confirmed that the copies of the letter and poster entered into evidence were the documents he received from Ms. Snyder . . .
[Collins] elected to testify and admitted that he sent the letters and put the poster on the bulletin board at the Three Springs Post Office. He denied placing copies of the posters in mailboxes in the Three Springs Area, instead attempting to blame the mail carrier who discovered them. [He] testified that his intent was to alert people living in the immediate area that [Hoffman] had been convicted of DUI and was driving on a suspended license, so that if they saw [him] driving they would call the police. [Collins] had apparently contacted the State Police many times himself with respect to [Hoffman] driving with a suspended license and was frustrated that the State Police had not arrested [him].
However, [Collins] also testified he distributed the letters and posters in order to retaliate against [Hoffman]
for perceived wrongs [as the following exchange between Collins and his attorney revealed:]
Q: I'm showing you [the poster]. Where did you get this document?
A: It was from a website.4
4 [The poster] appears to have been obtained from a website titled "BUSTED NEWSPAPER," which contains a searchable database of arrest mugshots and booking information. The information on the [poster] shows it was obtained from the "Bedford County Mugshots" subsection of the website, under the "Pennsylvania Mugshots" section.
Q: And that photograph on there, what is important about that to you?
A: Well, it identifies who he is and also identifies that
he was in custody when the picture was taken.
Q: Now there is some writing on there that you have
already admitted you wrote on there?
A: Yes.
Q: It says, "I crossed a Billy goat with a pig. What do you get? See for yourself." It's got an arrow pointing over to his picture. "It's got a goat face and smells like a pig. $500 reward to capture and put it in a cage. Call nearest police department for reward." You wrote that on there yourself?
A: Yes.
Q: That didn't come from that website?
A: No, it did not.
Q: Why did you put that on there?
A: Well, [Hoffman] and his father both were going through the community spreading lies about me, and he was continuously bragging about the fact that he could get away with driving with no license. And I just felt somebody needed to let people know
what the truth was about him; that his license was suspended, and he is a menace to the area.
Q: But to be fair, none of what you wrote on here talks about his suspended license, does it?
A: No.
Q: And you don't actually believe that you crossed a Billy goat with a pig to produce that man, do you?
A: No.
Q: So, you're not wanting anybody to believe that's the truth?
A: No.
Q: Would it be fair to say you wrote all this down there because you wanted to get back at him for spreading lies?
A: Yes.
Q: You were upset, and you wanted to take him down a peg?
A: Yes . . .
Q: Is it fair to say then, kind of summarizing what you were saying, you were wanting to tell people about the fact that man is a criminal and is driving without a license? Is that what you're saying?
A: Yes.
Q: But it's also fair to say that you wanted to get back at him for spreading lies about you and flaunting the law?
A: Yes.
On cross-examination, [Collins] admitted that he had not included anything on the poster that indicated the reason he was distributing it was because [Hoffman] was driving without a license.

Id. at 2-7 (citations to record and some footnotes omitted; some formatting altered).

At the close of the trial, the court convicted and sentenced Collins as related above. He sought post-sentence relief, which the trial court denied. This timely appeal followed.

On appeal, Collins raises three issues. First, he argues that the Commonwealth could not prosecute his conduct under the First Amendment to the federal constitution. Second, he asserts the Commonwealth did not produce sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction, as a matter of law. In this regard, Collins argues the harassment statute demands proof that his poster and letters reached the intended victim of the harassment, i.e., Hoffman. Finally, Collins contends that his sentence was manifestly excessive as it was not based upon any real injury to Hoffman and instead was based upon the court's frustration at the behavior of both Collins and Hoffman.[2]


We address Collins' sufficiency claim first, because, if he correctly interprets the Pennsylvania harassment statute, this Court can thereby avoid the constitutional question that he raises. Under the doctrine of constitutional avoidance, "we ought not to pass on questions of constitutionality . . . unless such adjudication is unavoidable." Spector Motor Service v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 105, (1944); see also In re Stevenson, 12 A.3d 273, 275 (Pa. 2010) (per curiam) ("[A]s a general matter, it is better to avoid constitutional questions if a non-constitutional ground for decision is available.").

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Collins argues that, "[to] obtain a valid conviction against [him], the Commonwealth was required to prove that his statements were received by the alleged victim," Hoffman. Collins' Brief at 17. While Collins...

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