Commonwealth v. Mason, No. 69 MAP 2019

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE BAER
Citation247 A.3d 1070
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Beth Ann MASON, Appellee
Decision Date25 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 69 MAP 2019

247 A.3d 1070

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant
v.
Beth Ann MASON, Appellee

No. 69 MAP 2019

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued: May 19, 2020
Decided: March 25, 2021


OPINION

JUSTICE BAER

In this appeal, we address the admissibility of audio evidence in a criminal trial under the Wiretapping and Electronic

247 A.3d 1072

Surveillance Act ("Wiretap Act"), 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 5701 - 5782. More specifically, we examine whether the Wiretap Act deems inadmissible a covertly obtained audio recording of Appellee Beth Ann Mason ("Appellee") while she worked as a nanny in the home of the family that employed her. Because Appellee failed to demonstrate that she possessed a justifiable expectation that her oral communications would not be subject to interception by a recording device located in the children's bedrooms, we hold that the Wiretap Act does not preclude the Commonwealth from introducing these recordings as evidence at Appellee's trial for allegedly abusing the children in her care. Consequently, for the reasons that follow, we, in relevant part, reverse the Superior Court's judgment, which held that the trial court properly suppressed the subject audio recording. In addition, we remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

In April of 2017, Eric Valle ("Valle") hired Appellee to act as a nanny for his children and, in doing so, prohibited her from using corporal punishment on the children.1 Approximately one month after Appellee commenced working for Valle, Valle's three-year-old son reported that Appellee was "thumbing" him in the face and hitting his twin two-year-old sisters. Around that same time, Valle observed that one of the twins had a "busted lip" and that his son occasionally had marks on his face.

Valle asked Appellee about his daughter's injured lip, and Appellee initially could not offer an explanation. The following day, however, she suggested that the child may have injured herself while attempting to climb out of her playpen. Valle was skeptical of this possibility given that his daughter suffered no other injuries that would indicate that she fell from her playpen. Of further note, Appellee told Valle that she did not know why his son would claim that she was "thumbing" his face or that she was striking the twins.

Additionally, after Appellee began to care for the children, Valle noticed a shift in their behavior. For example, if Valle raised his voice, his daughter would cover her face, a behavior that she did not exhibit prior to Appellee's employment with the family. Indeed, it appeared to Valle that his children were afraid of Appellee.

Approximately two months after Valle's son reported these incidents to him and Valle confronted Appellee, Valle placed a camera in his children's bedroom. The camera captured sound and video of its surroundings. Valle purposely did not inform Appellee of the presence of the camera. At some point, the camera recorded Appellee yelling at one child before forcefully placing her into a crib located inside of the bedroom where the camera was recording. Audio portions of the recording also suggest that Appellee may have struck the child several times. Valle gave the recording to the police.

The Commonwealth subsequently charged Appellee with aggravated assault, simple assault, and endangering the welfare of children. In response to Appellee's habeas corpus motion, the trial court dismissed the aggravated assault charge due to a lack of sufficient evidence to support it. Appellee then filed an omnibus pretrial motion, which included a motion to suppress the audio and video recordings captured by the previously mentioned camera.

In her motion to suppress, Appellee asserted that the Commonwealth's primary

247 A.3d 1073

evidence against her consisted of the audio and video recordings taken from Valle's hidden camera. Tellingly, throughout her motion to suppress, Appellee referred to this camera as a "nanny cam," a reference we adopt moving forward in this opinion. See , e.g. , Appellee's Pre-Trial Omnibus Motion, 4/16/2018, at ¶6 ("The underlying evidentiary basis for the charges is primarily a secretive audio and video recording from a hidden camera commonly referred to as a ‘nanny cam.’ "). Appellee suggested that the recordings from the nanny cam violate Section 5703 of the Wiretap Act, 18 Pa.C.S. § 5703,2 and, thus, would be inadmissible at Appellee's trial because Valle illegally intercepted her electronic and oral communications, as the Wiretap Act defines those terms.3 Appellee explained that, while the Wiretap Act contains a number of exceptions that allow a party to record secretly another person, none of those exceptions applies to the recordings at issue in this case. Thus, Appellee asked the trial court to suppress the recordings and make them unavailable as evidence at her trial.

The Commonwealth filed an answer to Appellee's omnibus motion. Therein, the Commonwealth contended that the recordings were admissible pursuant to the exception found at Subsection 5704(17) of the Wiretap Act, which states as follows:

It shall not be unlawful and no prior court approval shall be required under this chapter for[ ... a]ny victim, witness or private detective licensed under the act of August 21, 1953 (P.L. 1273, No. 361), known as The Private Detective Act of 1953, to intercept the contents of any wire, electronic or oral communication, if that person is under a reasonable suspicion that the intercepted party is committing, about to commit or has committed a crime of violence and there is reason to believe that evidence of the crime of violence may be obtained from the interception.

18 Pa.C.S. § 5704(17) (footnote omitted). In this regard, the Commonwealth explained that, when Valle began using the nanny cam, he had reasonable suspicion that Appellee was subjecting his children to a crime of violence and that he believed that the nanny cam would intercept evidence of that crime.

The trial court subsequently held an evidentiary hearing to address, inter alia , Appellee's motion to suppress the recordings. At that hearing, Valle was the Commonwealth's sole witness, and he testified in a manner consistent with the facts as stated above. Appellee briefly testified in support of her motion to suppress by providing her version of the conversation that occurred between her and Valle regarding the lip injury suffered by Valle's daughter. N.T., 5/24/2018, at 24-25. On June 26, 2018, the court entered an order that, in pertinent

247 A.3d 1074

part, granted Appellee's motion to suppress and excluded from trial both the audio and video recordings captured by the nanny cam. The court authored an opinion in support of its decision.

With due respect, the reasoning provided by the trial court largely is irrelevant to the current appeal. We nonetheless observe that, in its opinion, the court began its analysis by explaining that, for the Commonwealth to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the exception found at 18 Pa.C.S. § 5704(17) applies to the recordings in question, Valle had to have reasonable suspicion that Appellee was committing, about to commit, or had committed a "crime of violence," as that term is defined in the Wiretap Act. Trial Court Opinion, 6/26/2018, at 7. At the suppression hearing, the Commonwealth contended that when Valle began using the nanny cam, he had reasonable suspicion that Appellee was committing aggravated assault against his children.4 Id. at 7-8.

In response to that argument, the trial court highlighted that the only types of aggravated assault included in the Wiretap Act's definition of "crime of violence" can be found at 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 2702(a)(1) and (2).5 Id. at 8. As the court observed, pursuant to Subsection 2702(a)(1) of the Crimes Code, a person is guilty of aggravated assault if she "attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to the value of human life." 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702(a)(1). The court further emphasized that the Crimes Code defines "Serious bodily injury" as "[b]odily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ." 18 Pa.C.S. § 2602.

After briefly reiterating the circumstances presented at the suppression hearing, the trial court concluded that the Commonwealth failed to establish that, prior to utilizing the nanny cam, Valle had reasonable suspicion that Appellee was committing, about to commit, or had committed aggravated assault as defined by 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702(a)(1) because the Commonwealth did not present any evidence that Appellee caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury to the Valle children. Id. at 9-11. In other words, the court concluded that the Commonwealth failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the recordings at issue fit the Wiretap Act exception found at 18 Pa.C.S. § 5704(17).

Next, the trial court noted that, during oral argument regarding Appellee's motion to suppress, the Commonwealth proposed that, if the court were to exclude Appellee's recorded verbal statements from evidence, the court nonetheless could admit the portion of the audio...

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6 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 42 MAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 17, 2021
    ...de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions, as they are questions of law. Commonwealth v. Mason, ––– Pa. ––––, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (2021). Our scope of review is limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party at the suppression hearing and so much of the......
  • Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 42 MAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 17, 2021
    ...findings; we maintain de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions, as they are questions of law. Commonwealth v. Mason, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (Pa. 2021). Our scope of review is limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party at the suppression hearing and so......
  • Commonwealth v. Williams, 929 MDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 27, 2021
    ...findings; "however, we maintain de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions." Id. Commonwealth v. Mason, ___Pa. ___, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (2021). As noted above, Appellant waived his right to counsel and chose to represent himself at trial. In his pro se suppression motion,......
  • Commonwealth v. Jordan, 31 WDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 10, 2021
    ..."the Wiretap Act prohibits the interception, disclosure or use of any wire, electronic or oral communication." Commonwealth v. Mason, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (Pa. 2021). However, the Wiretap Act provides several exceptions, one of which allows an individual to utilize wiretaps if that individua......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 42 MAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 17, 2021
    ...de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions, as they are questions of law. Commonwealth v. Mason, ––– Pa. ––––, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (2021). Our scope of review is limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party at the suppression hearing and so much of the......
  • Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 42 MAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 17, 2021
    ...findings; we maintain de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions, as they are questions of law. Commonwealth v. Mason, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (Pa. 2021). Our scope of review is limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party at the suppression hearing and so......
  • Commonwealth v. Williams, 929 MDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 27, 2021
    ...findings; "however, we maintain de novo review over the suppression court's legal conclusions." Id. Commonwealth v. Mason, ___Pa. ___, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (2021). As noted above, Appellant waived his right to counsel and chose to represent himself at trial. In his pro se suppression motion,......
  • Commonwealth v. Jordan, 31 WDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 10, 2021
    ..."the Wiretap Act prohibits the interception, disclosure or use of any wire, electronic or oral communication." Commonwealth v. Mason, 247 A.3d 1070, 1080 (Pa. 2021). However, the Wiretap Act provides several exceptions, one of which allows an individual to utilize wiretaps if that individua......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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