Commonwealth v. Reyes-Acosta

Docket Number469 MDA 2022,J-A09040-23
Decision Date26 July 2023
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence Entered October 26, 2021, in the Court of Common Pleas of York County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-67-CR-0007777-2019.




Joel Reyes-Acosta appeals from the judgment of sentence entered after a jury found him guilty of indecent assault and harassment.[1] We reverse and remand for a new trial based on the Commonwealth's violation of Brady v Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

On October 2, 2019, Officer Thomas Wales of the Springettsbury Township Police Department filed a criminal complaint charging Reyes-Acosta based on an incident on September 13 2019. The case proceeded to a jury trial on July 20 and 21, 2021. The trial court recounted the evidence:

The victim, [M.G.], worked as an assistant manager at Suburban Park Apartments where [Reyes-Acosta] lived. [M.G.] had to interact with [Reyes-Acosta] when he would bring in his rent checks. [Any time he saw her, Reyes-Acosta] would tell [M.G.] she was beautiful or comment about her height or outfit.
One time [Reyes-Acosta] stated she "looked tired and that he wanted to give [her] a massage and lick the oil off [her] body."
[M.G.] stated [Reyes-Acosta] made her uncomfortable for months prior to the incident at hand. Approximately a week before the incident in question, at a community event at the apartment complex, [Reyes-Acosta] pinned [M.G.] between a bush and her car stating, "he wanted to eat [her] pussy and eat [her] ass." [M.G.] informed her manager, Stephanie Hartranft …, who was not there but was able to send her daughter in to ensure [M.G.] was not alone. None of the incidents prior to September 13, 2019, were reported to the police.
On September 13, 2019, the date of the incident leading to the charges in the instant case, [M.G.] … was smoking outside her office when [Reyes-Acosta] sat down next to her, inquiring about how to remove himself from his lease. When the conversation was finished, [M.G.] went inside to the bathroom to throw her cigarette out like she normally would, and when she turned around, [Reyes-Acosta] "was standing there with his arms up on the door blocking [her] from coming back." She hurriedly walked out but, in the hallway, [Reyes-Acosta] put his arms around her "waist and his hand on [her] butt and told [her] he wanted to eat [her] pussy and ass and tried to kiss [her]." To avoid [Reyes-Acosta's] open-mouth kiss, [M.G.] turned her head, so [Reyes-Acosta] got saliva on her face instead of her lips.
[M.G.] "pushed [past] him" and got back to work while [Reyes-Acosta] made himself some coffee. [Reyes-Acosta] saw a check had fallen on the floor next to [M.G.], so [Reyes-Acosta] approached her and took his hand and rubbed it down [M.G.'s] back and down into her pants. [H]e started in between her shoulder blades and as he rubbed downward, she pushed herself back into her chair to stop his hand from going any further.
Once [Reyes-Acosta] left, [M.G.] notified Stephanie, a maintenance staff member, and the police about the incident. Approximately fifteen minutes after the incident, a tenant named Christine [Heinrich] had come to the office to hand out fliers, but stayed and comforted [M.G.] until police came. Although the police were called, Stephanie confirmed that [M.G.] did not give [Reyes-Acosta] a no trespass order for the leasing office.
On September 18, 2019, Officer Thomas Wales received an apology letter from Stephanie that was written by [Reyes-Acosta]. In the letter, [Reyes-Acosta] apologized for the "misunderstanding" and thanked [M.G.] for "always telling me to take care of my family."

Trial Court Opinion, 6/6/22, at 2-4.

The jury found Reyes-Acosta guilty of indecent assault and harassment. On October 26, 2021, the trial court sentenced Reyes-Acosta to serve 2 weeks to 23 months of incarceration concurrent with 12 months of probation and to pay $28,556.82 in restitution. Reyes-Acosta filed a post-sentence motion claiming, inter alia, that the Commonwealth violated Brady by failing to provide until after sentencing a letter from the workers' compensation insurer that paid benefits to M.G. related to this incident. The trial court heard and denied Reyes-Acosta's post-sentence motion after a hearing on February 16, 2022. Reyes-Acosta timely appealed. Reyes-Acosta and the trial court complied with Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925.

Reyes-Acosta presents five issues for review:

A. Was the evidence insufficient to support the charges, where the Commonwealth did not establish that Mr. Reyes-Acosta had contact with the complainant's intimate parts, and the Commonwealth's evidence was wholly unreliable?
B. Did the lower court err and abuse its discretion in granting the Commonwealth's motion in limine and admitting other acts evidence, where the court failed to conduct the balancing test that [Pa.R.E. 404(b)] requires, and the Commonwealth did not meet an exception to the rule against the admission of this type of evidence?
C. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Reyes-Acosta's post-sentence motion seeking a new trial based on a Brady violation, where the Commonwealth withheld the complainant's worker's compensation letter containing favorable and material information until Mr. Reyes-Acosta's sentencing?
D. Was the verdict against the weight of the evidence, where the complainant embellished her testimony and the only other witness admitted to "being forgetful?"
E. Did the trial court abuse its discretion at sentencing by failing to state on the record its reason for imposing a term of incarceration when the Sentencing Guidelines recommended a sentence as low as probation?

Reyes-Acosta's Brief at 7-8.

A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

Reyes-Acosta's first issue is a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. His argument is twofold. First, he argues that M.G.'s cheek and pants-covered buttocks are not "sexual or intimate parts" of her body, which the Commonwealth had to prove that Reyes-Acosta touched for the offense of indecent assault. Second, he contends that the testimony of Heinrich and M.G. was so inherently unreliable that it was insufficient to prove either crime.

We employ a well-settled scope and standard of review:

A claim challenging the sufficiency of the evidence is a question of law. Evidence will be deemed sufficient to support the verdict when it establishes each material element of the crime charged and the commission thereof by the accused, beyond a reasonable doubt. Where the evidence offered to support the verdict is in contradiction to the physical facts, in contravention to human experience and the laws of nature, then the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law. When reviewing a sufficiency claim[,] the court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict winner giving the prosecution the benefit of all reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence.

Commonwealth v. Johnson, 180 A.3d 474, 478 (Pa. Super. 2018) (quoting Commonwealth v. Widmer, 744 A.2d 745, 751 (Pa. 2000)). Testimony from a single witness is sufficient to sustain a conviction if it addresses every element of the crime charged. Id. at 481; see also 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3106 ("The testimony of a complainant need not be corroborated in prosecutions under [Chapter 31].").

Section 3126 of the Crimes Code provides that "[a] person is guilty of indecent assault if the person has indecent contact with the complainant . . . and the person does so without the complainant's consent." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3126(a)(1). "Indecent contact" is "[a]ny touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of the person for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire, in any person." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3101. The "touching" is not required to involve skin-to-skin contact; it is enough to prove touching through a layer of clothing. Commonwealth v. Ricco, 650 A.2d 1084, 1086 (Pa. Super. 1994). Further, "sexual or other intimate parts" includes any "body part that is personal and private, and which the person ordinarily allows to be touched only by people with whom the person has a close personal relationship, and one which is commonly associated with sexual relations or intimacy." Commonwealth v. Gamby, 283 A.3d 298, 313-14 (Pa. 2022)[2] (footnote omitted); accord Commonwealth v. Capo, 727 A.2d 1126, 1127 (Pa. Super. 1999) (holding evidence sufficient where a defendant tried to kiss a complainant's mouth but reached only her face and neck and rubbed her shoulders, back, and stomach).

Here, the evidence was sufficient to convict Reyes-Acosta of indecent assault. M.G. testified that Reyes-Acosta "put [his arms] around [her] waist and his hand on [her] butt and told [her] that he wanted … to eat [her] pussy and eat [her] ass and tried to kiss [her]" on her mouth, getting saliva on her face. N.T., 7/21/21, at 104. The jury was free to believe this testimony, which established that Reyes-Acosta touched M.G.'s sexual or intimate parts. His statement about wanting to "eat" her "pussy" and "ass" supports the inference that he had the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire.

Likewise the testimony of the Commonwealth's witnesses was not so inherently unreliable as to be insufficient to support Reyes-Acosta's guilt. While Reyes-Acosta attacks Heinrich's corroborating testimony based on her forgetfulness, corroboration is not required. Johnson, 180 A.3d at 481; 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3106. Although Reyes-Acosta asserts that M.G. had a motive to lie and had not reported the prior incident until ...

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