Three Strikes Law; Separate Sentencing for Related Conspiracy

Commonwealth v. Griffin, 149 A.3d 349 (Pa. Super. 2016), allocatur granted Nov. 14, 2017, appeal docket 72 MAP 2017

A jury convicted Tyrice Griffin of three counts each of robbery, conspiracy, and firearms not to be carried without a license. Griffin waived his right to a jury on select charges, and the trial court additionally convicted Appellant of three counts of person not to possess a firearm.  Prior to sentencing, the Commonwealth notified Appellant of its intent to seek mandatory sentences under Pennsylvania’s recidivism statute (42 Pa. C.S. § 9714).

At the sentencing hearing, the parties agreed that Griffin was subject to the second-strike offender portion of Section 9714 based on Griffin’s prior third-degree murder conviction. As such, the trial court imposed second-strike mandatory minimum sentences of ten to twenty years imprisonment for Griffin’s conspiracy and robbery (the underlying crime object of the conspiracy) convictions, resulting in an aggregate sentence of 60 to 120 years’ imprisonment.

On appeal, the Superior Court considered whether “the trial court erred in imposing separate consecutive ‘second strike’ sentencing enhancements for each of the offense of conspiracy and each of the underlying crimes which were the object of that conspiracy?”

First, the Superior Court addressed the case of Commonwealth v. Fields, 107 A.3d 738 (Pa. 2014), where the Supreme Court interpreted the language of Section 9714(a)(1) to provide that multiple crimes of violence committed in the same criminal episode are each subject to the statutory sentencing enhancement for second-strike offenders. In that case, the Supreme Court interpreted the text of Section 9714(a)(1) to require the sentencing enhancement for second-strike offenders as long as the defendant previously committed a crime of violence and his current offense is a crime of violence. Specifically, the relevant portion of Section 9714(a)(1) provides:

(a) Mandatory sentence.

(1) Any person who is convicted in any court of this Commonwealth of a crime of violence shall, if at the time of the J-S76042-16 – 4 – commission of the current offense the person had previously been convicted of a crime of violence, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least ten years of total confinement, notwithstanding any other provision of this title or other statute to the contrary. Upon a second conviction for a crime of violence, the court shall give the person oral and written notice of the penalties under this section for a third conviction for a crime of violence …

Griffin argued that the Supreme Court’s precedent in Fields is not applicable where separate second-strike sentencing enhancements are imposed both for the conspiracy offense and the object of the conspiracy. Specifically, Griffin noted Section 9714(g)’s definition of a “crime of violence”:

(g) Definition.–As used in this section, the term “crime of violence” means murder of the third degree, voluntary manslaughter, manslaughter of a law enforcement officer as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2507(c) or (d) (relating to criminal homicide of law enforcement officer), murder of the third degree involving an unborn child as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2604(c) (relating to murder of unborn child), aggravated assault of an unborn child as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2606 (relating to aggravated assault of unborn child), aggravated assault as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702(a)(1) or (2) (relating to aggravated assault), assault of law enforcement officer as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702.1 (relating to assault of law enforcement officer), use of weapons of mass destruction as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2716(b) (relating to weapons of mass destruction), terrorism as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2717(b)(2) (relating to terrorism), trafficking of persons when the offense is graded as a felony of the first degree as provided in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3002 (relating to trafficking of persons), rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, incest, sexual assault, arson endangering persons or aggravated arson as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3301(a) or (a.1) (relating to arson and related offenses), ecoterrorism as classified in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3311(b)(3) (relating to ecoterrorism), kidnapping, burglary as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3502(a)(1) (relating to burglary), robbery as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3701(a)(1)(i), (ii) or (iii) (relating to robbery), or robbery of a motor vehicle, drug delivery resulting in death as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2506(a) (relating to drug delivery resulting in death), or criminal attempt, criminal conspiracy or criminal solicitation to commit murder or any of the offenses listed above, or an equivalent crime under the laws of this Commonwealth in effect at the time of the commission of that offense or an equivalent crime in another jurisdiction.

Griffin argued that the use of the word ‘or’ in this section is indicative of the Legislature’s intent that the enhancement shall apply to either the principal offense or the conspiracy to commit the offense, but not both the conspiracy and the object thereof.

Disagreeing with Griffin, the Superior Court looked to the plain language of Section 9714(g), explaining that the use of the word “or” merely indicates that there are numerous offenses which constitute crimes of violence which would subject the offender to a sentencing enhancement upon a subsequent conviction. Furthermore, Section 9714(g) does not contain any language describing when or how the sentencing enhancement would be applied, but simply defines the subset of crimes subject to the provisions of the statute. The Superior Court held that second-strike law authorized separate enhancements to sentences for robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery committed in same course of conduct, concluding:

We reject Appellant’s assertion that the particular word “or” in Section 9714 before the listing of the inchoate crimes prevents the simultaneous application of sentencing enhancements for the principal offenses. Our courts do not dissect statutory text and interpret it in a vacuum. See Kingston, supra. We perceive no basis for adopting such a tortured interpretation. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s precedent in Fields, we find that the trial court did not err in imposing multiple mandatory minimum sentences for Appellant’s convictions for robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery.

Slip Op., at 7.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine:

Whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the imposition of separate consecutive “second strike” mandatory minimum sentence[s] for each conspiracy and crime which was the object of that conspiracy?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.