Commonwealth v. Hamlett, No. 8 WAP 2019

Decision Date21 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 8 WAP 2019
Citation234 A.3d 486
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. James Calvin HAMLETT, Jr., Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
OPINION

CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR

Appeal was allowed to determine whether this Court should prohibit Pennsylvania appellate courts from exercising their discretion to apply the harmless-error doctrine when deemed warranted, in criminal cases where advocacy from the Commonwealth on the subject is lacking.

In 2016, Appellant was convicted of numerous crimes deriving from a sexual assault upon a minor, and lengthy concurrent terms of incarceration were imposed at sentencing. On appeal, the Superior Court found that the trial court had erred in admitting a video of a forensic interview of the victim into evidence. Nevertheless, the intermediate court invoked the harmless-error doctrine to deny Appellant's request for a new trial, reasoning that the video was merely cumulative of properly-admitted evidence in the form of the victim's testimony.1

Given that the Commonwealth hadn't argued harmlessness, the Superior Court invoked the precept that an appellate court may affirm a valid verdict based on any reason appearing in the record, regardless of whether the rationale was raised by the appellee. See Commonwealth v. Hamlett , No. 1172 WDA 2016, slip op. at 27-28, 2018 WL 4327391, at *13 n.8 (Pa. Super. Sept. 11, 2018) (citing Commonwealth v. Moore , 594 Pa. 619, 638, 937 A.2d 1062, 1073 (2007) ). In discussing this "right-for-any-reason" doctrine, the intermediate court referenced Justice Wecht's dissenting opinion in Commonwealth v. Hicks , 638 Pa. 444, 156 A.3d 1114 (2017) (plurality).

There, the Justice noted an "apparent tension between" this right-for-any-reason precept and the allocation to the Commonwealth of the burden to demonstrate that an error is harmless. Id. at 518 n.1, 156 A.3d at 1158 n.1 (Wecht, J., dissenting). Albeit expressing a belief that "we can apply the [harmless-error] doctrine without prior invocation," he nonetheless proceeded to observe:

it seems inconsistent to assign to a party a burden of proof that is applicable only in appellate proceedings, while determining simultaneously that the party has satisfied that burden without the party raising or addressing the doctrine in any way.

Id.

In the same passage of its opinion, the intermediate court also alluded to Justice Baer's concurrence in Hicks , in which he explained as follows:

As Justice Wecht notes in his dissenting opinion, there are two seemingly incompatible pronouncements from this Court with respect to the Commonwealth's burden to raise harmless error. Traditionally, we have held that the Commonwealth must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that an error was harmless. More recently, however, this Court has recognized that we may affirm a judgment based on harmless error even if that argument was not raised by the Commonwealth because "an appellate court has the ability to affirm a valid judgment or verdict for any reason appearing as of record." Thus, while ordinarily the Commonwealth has the burden of persuasion when it asserts that a particular error was harmless, sua sponte invocation of the harmless error doctrine is not inappropriate as it does nothing more than affirm a valid judgment of sentence on an alternative basis .

Hicks , 638 Pa. at 488, 156 A.3d at 1140 (Baer, J, concurring) (emphasis added; footnote and citations omitted).

We allowed appeal to consider Appellant's contention that application of the right-for-any-reason doctrine to deem an error harmless improperly relieves the Commonwealth of its burden to demonstrate harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. See Commonwealth v. Hamlett , ––– Pa. ––––, 202 A.3d 45 (2019) (per curiam ). The issue is a legal one, over which our review is plenary. See, e.g. , Yussen v. MCARE Fund , 616 Pa. 108, 117, 46 A.3d 685, 691 (2012).2

Presently, Appellant candidly acknowledges that Pennsylvania appellate courts -- including this one -- occasionally exercise their discretion by invoking the right-for-any-reason doctrine to proceed, sua sponte , to determine whether errors are harmless. See Brief for Appellant at 23-25 (citing, inter alia , Commonwealth v. Allshouse , 614 Pa. 229, 261 & n.21, 36 A.3d 163, 182 & n.21 (2012) ("This Court may affirm a judgment based on harmless error even if such an argument is not raised by the parties.")).3 Furthermore, he recognizes that "most federal circuit courts agree that they may conduct harmless error analysis sua sponte. " Id. at 26 (citing, inter alia , U.S. v. Giovannetti , 928 F.2d 225, 226 (7th Cir. 1991) (per curiam )); see also U.S. v. Arrous , 320 F.3d 355, 356 (2d Cir. 2003) (portraying sua sponte consideration of harmless error as a matter of common sense in a particular set of circumstances).4

It is Appellant's core position, however, that the practice should be disapproved and discarded. Principally, he maintains that application of the right-for-any-reason doctrine to support sua sponte harmless-error review inappropriately relieves the government from the requirement to meet its burden of proof of harmlessness, upon an appellate court's discernment of a trial error. See, e.g. , Brief for Appellant at 24 (depicting a "slow but sure dilution" of the harmless-error doctrine). Appellant also charges that this approach "jeopardizes the neutrality and impartiality of the appellate courts, undermines the adversarial system, and presents serious ... separation of powers concerns." Id. at 9.

Throughout his brief, Appellant downplays concerns with judicial economy underlying applications of the harmless-error precept, while stressing that the doctrine was also implemented to secure justice for criminal defendants. See , e.g. , Brief for Appellant at 11 (citing Chapman v. California , 386 U.S. 18, 22, 87 S. Ct. 824, 827, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967) ). In this vein, he highlights the observation, by the Supreme Court of the United States, that "harmless-error rules can work very unfair and mischievous results when, for example, highly important and persuasive evidence, or argument, though legally forbidden, finds its way into a trial in which the question of guilt or innocence is a close one." Chapman , 386 U.S. at 22, 87 S. Ct. at 827. For this very reason, Appellant relates, the Supreme Court imposed the exacting beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold to findings of harmlessness associated with violations of federal constitutional law. See id. at 24, 87 S. Ct. at 828 ; see also id. at 23, 87 S. Ct. at 828 (stressing "an intention not to treat as harmless" those errors which affect substantial rights).

In the seminal decision in Commonwealth v. Story , 476 Pa. 391, 383 A.2d 155 (1978), Appellant further explains, this Court extended the Chapman standard of proof to instances of trial error in Pennsylvania state courts. See id. at 408, 383 A.2d at 164 (reasoning that, absent the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt litmus, "there is the danger that a lenient harmless error rule may denigrate the interests and policies which both constitutional and non-constitutional rules promote"). Ultimately, he observes, the harmless-error doctrine operates as a due-process guarantee to assure fundamental fairness relative to criminal trials, notwithstanding any errors that may have occurred. See Brief for Appellant at 17.

With respect to the right-for-any-reason principle, Appellant also highlights the inherent limitations, such as the doctrine's inapplicability where factual matters are in dispute. See id. (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp. , 318 U.S. 80, 88, 63 S. Ct. 454, 459, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943), and Bearoff v. Bearoff Bros., Inc. , 458 Pa. 494, 501, 327 A.2d 72, 76 (1974) ). More centrally, he contends that the harmless-error and right-for-any-reason constructs are entirely separate and unrelated. From Appellant's point of view, the harmless-error doctrine pertains to actual trial errors, which he categorizes as encompassing "errors in admission" or "errors in use" of evidence. Id. at 19. By contrast, he envisions that application of the right-for-any-reason doctrine is limited to "errors in rationale." Id. at 20; see also id. at 21 (suggesting that the right-for-any-reason precept can apply only where "no true trial error occurred"). It is Appellant's position that "true trial errors" render a trial potentially unfair, whereas "errors in rationale" do not. Id. at 22; id. at 23 ("Errors in rationale ... do not render a trial potentially unfair because the evidence is both properly admitted and the finder of fact is instructed to consider the evidence for the correct evidentiary purpose."). In this regard, he asserts that the right-for-any-reason doctrine is concerned solely with preventing a defendant whose conviction was never impacted by an actual error from obtaining a windfall in the form of a new trial. Id. at 23.

The Commonwealth, for its part, urges that harmless-error review administered by an appellate court of its own accord should be regarded as a "rarely-employed exception" to the allocation of the burden of proof to the Commonwealth, and that Pennsylvania appellate courts should retain the authority to raise harmless error sua sponte in cases where no unfairness to criminal defendants will result. Brief for Appellee at 9. The Commonwealth relies substantially on the current state of Pennsylvania law -- as acknowledged by Appellant -- and the underlying policy of facilitating the promotion of judicial economy with due and appropriate regard for defendants’ substantive rights.

In these respects, the Commonwealth emphasizes that a criminal "defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one." Lutwak v. U.S. , 344 U.S. 604, 619, 73 S. Ct. 481, 490, 97 L.Ed. 593 (1953) ; accord Allshouse , 614 Pa. at 261, 36 A.3d at 182 (citation omitted). The Commonwealth references other similar expressions by the Supreme Court of the United States, such as the following:

The harmless-error
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