Commonwealth v. Dantzler, 681 EDA 2014

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtOPINION BY BOWES, J.
Citation135 A.3d 1109,2016 PA Super 59
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Thomas DANTZLER, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 681 EDA 2014,681 EDA 2014
Decision Date09 March 2016

135 A.3d 1109
2016 PA Super 59

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant
Thomas DANTZLER, Appellee.

No. 681 EDA 2014

Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued Oct. 15, 2015.
Filed March 9, 2016.

135 A.3d 1110

James F. Gibbons, Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia, for Commonwealth, appellant.

Brendan T, McGuigan, Philadelphia, appellee.



The Commonwealth appeals from the January 28, 2014 order entered by the trial court that granted Thomas Dantzler's pre-trial motion to quash the charges leveled herein based on a lack of prima facie evidence.1 We reverse and remand.

Reginald Smith, the victim in this matter, resided with Tiffany,2 his girlfriend and the mother of his child, on the 3500 block of Camac Street, Philadelphia. On March 27, 2012, Mr. Smith arrived at his home and discovered Appellee engaging in sexual activity with Tiffany.3 As a result, Mr. Smith tried to remove both Tiffany and Appellee from the home. Appellee and Mr. Smith then began to fight, with Mr. Smith attempting to force Appellee out his front door. Mr. Smith ultimately retrieved a stick during the struggle and began to beat Appellee. Tiffany also used a taser on Appellee.

Mr. Smith's neighbor, Kim Amos, who had lived in her home for twenty-three years, arrived to see Mr. Smith, Tiffany, and Appellee fighting. Ms. Amos maintained that Appellee was trying to enter the home and Mr. Smith was trying to push him out and that this happened several times. Ms. Amos saw Mr. Smith use

135 A.3d 1111

the stick outside the home to beat Appellee and asked Mr. Smith and Tiffany to stop attacking Appellee and call the police. Ms. Amos then telephoned 911 herself. Police charged Mr. Smith and Tiffany with assault.

Thereafter, on April 7, 2012, at around 3:00 p.m., Ms. Amos observed Appellee and co-defendant Gelain Heard approach her home. She recognized Appellee from the fight but had never seen Mr. Heard. After they stopped in front of her house, she shouted at them that, “You have the wrong house.” N.T., 7/16/12, at 17. She repeated that several times. Nonetheless, Mr. Heard used a cell phone to take a picture of her house.

Disturbed, Ms. Amos then followed the two men in her car and saw them enter a black Dodge Durango. She drove next to the Durango and again informed the men that they had the wrong home. Appellee was seated in the driver's seat of the Durango. Mr. Heard then said twice, “On everything I love, just don't be in the house tonight.” Id. at 21.

Later that evening, a video surveillance camera captured an individual in a black hoodie with a baseball cap standing next to Appellee's Durango, conversing with the driver, around the corner from Ms. Amos' and Mr. Smith's homes. Several minutes later, Ms. Amos saw Mr. Heard on her steps, wearing a black hoodie and baseball hat. Mr. Heard asked her twice, “Is this the F-in' house?” Id. at 24. Ms. Amos responded, “F-no, this is not the house,” and slammed her door. Id. Within five minutes, she heard four or five gun shots ring out. Mr. Smith, who was alone in his house at the time, described bullets flying into his home. He was hit in the shoulder with a bullet and another bullet grazed his neck.

Subsequently, police charged Appellee with aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime (“PIC”), simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person (“REAP”). He proceeded to a preliminary hearing and the court bound over the case for trial. Appellee then filed a motion to quash the information, the equivalent in Philadelphia practice of a pre-trial writ of habeas corpus. After reviewing the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing, the trial court conducted a hearing. It heard additional evidence and then granted the motion. The Commonwealth filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court denied on February 25, 2014. The Commonwealth timely appealed.

A divided panel of this Court affirmed, concluding that based on an abuse of discretion standard we were required to defer to the trial court and that the evidence only showed mere presence at the scene shortly before the crime occurred.4 The Commonwealth sought en banc review, which this Court granted. The matter is now ready for our review. The Commonwealth's sole issue on appeal is “Did the lower court err in ruling that the evidence was insufficient for a prima facie case?” Commonwealth's brief at 4.

We review a decision to grant a pre-trial petition for a writ of habeas corpus by examining the evidence and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in a light most favorable to the Commonwealth. Commonwealth v. James, 863 A.2d 1179, 1182 (Pa.Super.2004) (en banc ). In

135 A.3d 1112

Commonwealth v. Karetny, 583 Pa. 514, 880 A.2d 505 (2005), our Supreme Court found that this Court erred in applying an abuse of discretion standard in considering a pre-trial habeas matter to determine whether the Commonwealth had provided prima facie evidence. The Karetny Court opined, “the Commonwealth's prima facie case for a charged crime is a question of law as to which an appellate court's review is plenary.” Id. at 513, 880 A.2d 505 ; see also Commonwealth v. Huggins, 575 Pa. 395, 836 A.2d 862, 865 (2003) (“The question of the evidentiary sufficiency of the Commonwealth's prima facie case is one of law [.]”). The High Court in Karetny continued, “[i]ndeed, the trial court is afforded no discretion in ascertaining whether, as a matter of law and in light of the facts presented to it, the Commonwealth has carried its pre-trial, prima facie burden to make out the elements of a charged crime.” Karetny, supra at 513, 880 A.2d 505. Hence, we are not bound by the legal determinations of the trial court. To the extent prior cases from this Court have set forth that we evaluate the decision to grant a pre-trial habeas corpus motion under an abuse of discretion standard, our Supreme Court has rejected that view. See id.5

A pre-trial habeas corpus motion is the proper means for testing whether the Commonwealth has sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case. Carroll, supra at 1152. “To demonstrate that a prima facie case exists, the Commonwealth must produce evidence of every material element of the charged offense(s) as well as the defendant's complicity therein.” Id. To “meet its burden, the Commonwealth may utilize the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing and also may submit additional proof.” Id.

The Commonwealth maintains that the trial court erred as a matter of law in dismissing the charges against Appellee.6 According to the Commonwealth, the trial

135 A.3d 1113

court made impermissible and implausible inferences from the evidence and entirely disregarded its evidence of motive. It highlights that the credibility of witnesses is not determined at a preliminary hearing and that the question of whether the evidence was sufficient is one of law. In its view, the trial court erred in finding that, absent direct evidence of an agreement between Appellee and his co-defendant, neither a conspiracy nor conspiratorial liability was established. The Commonwealth posits that direct evidence is not mandated nor is required to prove an express or explicit agreement via verbal communication.

It continues that the following evidence was sufficient to establish a prima facie case: Appellee traveled together with Mr. Heard to where Appellee had recently been involved in a fight with the victim, took a picture of the victim's neighbor's home, was present when his co-defendant made a threat, and his vehicle was observed around the corner from Mr. Smith's home with a person fitting the description of Mr. Heard shortly before Mr. Heard arrived on the door step of Mr. Smith's neighbor's home, and then shots were fired at Mr. Smith's house.

The Commonwealth adds that its evidence demonstrated that Mr. Heard had no affiliation with the victim. It suggests that, “[o]nly a conspiracy with [Appellee], who had ample motive, can explain why Heard decided to track down a complete stranger and fire multiple bullets into his home.” Commonwealth's brief at 21. In addition, it points out that Ms. Amos inferred a conspiratorial purpose and potential criminal activity herself when she saw the pair in front of her house taking a...

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