Commonwealth v. Smith, No. 2 EAP 2019

Decision Date21 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2 EAP 2019
Citation234 A.3d 576
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Brahim SMITH, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
OPINION

JUSTICE DOUGHERTY

In this discretionary appeal, we consider whether a person who is subject to a bench warrant is a "fugitive from justice" such that he is a "person not to possess, use, control, sell, transfer or manufacture" a firearm pursuant to Section 6105 of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995 (UFA).1 We conclude the active bench warrant for appellant Brahim Smith rendered him a fugitive from justice prohibited from possessing a firearm and he was properly convicted under the statute.2 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105(c)(1) ("... the following persons shall be subject to the prohibition of subsection (a) [from possessing, using, controlling, selling, transferring or manufacturing a firearm]: (1) A person who is a fugitive from justice."). We affirm the order of the Superior Court upholding appellant's judgment of sentence.

In the early afternoon of April 21, 2014, police were called to investigate a crime in progress in the area of 12th Street and Glenwood Avenue in Philadelphia. See Trial Ct. Op. at 1-2. The radio call described the suspect as a black male, wearing a black hat, black polo shirt and tan cargo pants. Id. at 2. Officers Alberto Ortiz and Michael Edwards arrived at the scene within two minutes of the radio call. Id. Sergeant Michael Soto and his partner Officer Sylvester White, were already on location. Id. While Sergeant Soto was speaking with the complainant, he observed a pair of feet hanging out of the sliding door of a green minivan parked approximately halfway down the block on 12th Street. Id. Sergeant Soto, Officer White and the complainant directed Officers Ortiz and Edwards to the minivan, where they found appellant as the sole occupant of the van. Id. As Officers Ortiz and Edwards exited their patrol car, appellant stood from his seat on the floor of the van and walked toward them. Id. The officers were then able to observe that appellant matched the description provided by dispatch in the radio call. Id. at 2-3.

Officer Brittany Kelly3 also responded to the radio call and arrived at the scene approximately five minutes after Officers Ortiz and Edwards. Id. at 3. Officer Kelly looked inside the van and saw a firearm in an open cardboard box located between the second and third rows of the minivan, approximately one foot away from the van's sliding door where appellant had been sitting. Id. Officer Kelly alerted Officer Ortiz of her discovery, and he instructed her to hold the scene, which she did until Officer Ortiz returned thirty minutes later. Id. at 4. During this time, no one else approached or accessed the van, and the gun was not moved. Id. The gun was eventually determined to be a Bryco Arms .38 automatic handgun, with one live round in the chamber and six rounds in the magazine. Id.

Appellant was arrested and charged with, inter alia , the following counts under the UFA: (1) Section 6106 — Firearms Not to be Carried Without a License;4 (2) Section 6108 — Carrying Firearms on Public Streets or Public Property in Philadelphia;5 and (3) Section 6105 — Persons Not to Possess Firearms.6 Appellant proceeded to a bifurcated trial on October 12, 2016 with the Section 6106 and Section 6108 charges proceeding to trial before a jury. The Commonwealth introduced a Certificate of Non-Licensure for appellant, demonstrating he did not have a license to carry a firearm or a valid firearm permit on April 21, 2014, the date of the incident. See Trial Ct. Op. at 5. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge under Section 6106 (firearms not to be carried without a license), and not guilty on the charge under Section 6108 (carrying a firearm on a public street in Philadelphia). See N.T. 10/14/16 at 10. A bench trial was then held on the remaining charge for persons not to possess firearms pursuant to Section 6105.

Section 6105 provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

(a) Offense defined.
(1) A person ... whose conduct meets the criteria in subsection (c) shall not possess, use, control, sell, transfer or manufacture or obtain a license to possess, use, control, sell, transfer or manufacture a firearm in this Commonwealth.
* * *
(c) Other persons. — ... the following persons shall be subject to the prohibition of subsection (a):
(1) A person who is a fugitive from justice. This paragraph does not apply to an individual whose fugitive status is based upon a nonmoving or moving summary offense under Title 75 (relating to vehicles).

18 Pa.C.S. § 6105. The parties stipulated that, at the time of the offense on April 21, 2014, appellant was subject to an active bench warrant, issued on April 3, 2014. Specifically, the stipulation provided:

There's also been a stipulation by and between counsel that at the time of this offense on April 21st of 2014, [appellant] Brahim Smith, had an active bench warrant, which was issued on April 3rd of 2014 under CP-51-CR-0003923-2011. That bench warrant was lifted on May 1st of 2014, which would make him ineligible for -- a prohibited person from carrying a firearm under 6105 graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree.

See N.T. 10/14/16 at 20-21. The stipulation agreed to by counsel for both parties was "that this defendant is ineligible to possess the firearm, he was prohibited specifically because of the bench warrant as well as the [criminal] docket indicating that there was an active bench warrant at the time." Id. at 23.

Notwithstanding the stipulation regarding the bench warrant, appellant argued to the trial court there was insufficient evidence he violated Section 6105(c)(1) because the Commonwealth could not prove he was a fugitive from justice. See Trial Ct. Op. at 11. The Commonwealth responded the existence of the active bench warrant rendered appellant a fugitive from justice for purposes of the statute. The trial court agreed with the Commonwealth, stating "[b]ench warrants are routinely issued by the court when a defendant has either failed to attend a required court hearing or fails to report to his probation officer as required and ordered by the court. The sole reason these warrants are issued is because an offender is not complying and reporting as instructed." Id. at 12. The trial court thus found there was sufficient evidence to support appellant's conviction under Section 6105(c)(1), and subsequently sentenced him to three to six years’ incarceration for the charge of firearms not to be carried without a license under Section 6106, and a consecutive term of four years’ probation for persons not to possess a firearm under Section 6105. See Superior Ct. Op. at 4.

On appeal to the Superior Court, appellant renewed his argument that the Commonwealth failed to prove he was a fugitive from justice as defined by Section 6105(c)(1).7 The Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence based on the trial court's finding there was sufficient evidence appellant was a fugitive due to his outstanding bench warrant at the time of the April 21, 2014 incident. Id. at 8.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and we granted review to address the following question:

Did not the Superior Court err in finding the evidence sufficient to convict [appellant] for violating 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105 because he was specifically convicted under § 6105(c), and the Commonwealth failed to prove that he was a "fugitive from justice" as that term is meant in § 6105(c) ?

Commonwealth v. Smith , ––– Pa. ––––, 203 A.3d 210 (2019) (per curiam ). When presented with a sufficiency claim like appellant's, we must determine "whether the evidence proved at trial established the appellant's guilt of each element of the offenses charged beyond a reasonable doubt[.]" In Interest of J.B. , 647 Pa. 339, 189 A.3d 390, 408 (2018), quoting Commonwealth v. Bausewine , 354 Pa. 35, 46 A.2d 491, 493 (1946) ("The facts and circumstances proved must, in order to warrant a conviction, be such as to establish the guilt of the defendant ... beyond a reasonable doubt."). "Evidentiary sufficiency is a question of law and, therefore, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary." Commonwealth v. Sanchez , 614 Pa. 1, 36 A.3d 24, 37 (2011), citing Commonwealth v. Meals , 590 Pa. 110, 912 A.2d 213, 218 (2006). When performing a sufficiency review, we consider whether the evidence introduced at trial and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, are sufficient to establish the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

Appellant contends there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction under Section 6105 because the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate he was a fugitive from justice. See Appellant's Brief at 13. Appellant argues the term "fugitive from justice" is not defined by statute, and its most common meaning refers to a person who has fled the jurisdiction of a court after having committed a crime. Id. In a departure from his argument before the Superior Court, appellant claims the common meaning of the term "fugitive from justice" is associated with extradition, and does not easily transfer to the use of the term in Section 6105. According to appellant, the term must be defined using principles of statutory interpretation.

Appellant submits "the best indicator of the legislature's intent is the plain language of the statute." Id. at 21, citing Allstate Life Ins. Co. v. Commonwealth , 617 Pa. 1, 52 A.3d 1077, 1080 (2012). Relying on the 1979 edition of Black's Law Dictionary, appellant claims a "fugitive from justice" must have "committed a crime [and fled] from the jurisdiction of the court where the crime was committed[.]" Id. , quoting BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY (5th ed. 1979), 604. Appellant notes Black's defines the term as "[o]ne who flees; used in criminal law with the implication of flight,...

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