Does PCRA’s time-bar trump trial court power to correct obvious mistakes?

Commonwealth v. McGee, 2021 WL 2826693 (Pa. Super.) (unpublished), allocatur granted Apr. 12, 2022, appeal docket 17 WAP 2022

The Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) requires that, absent statutory exceptions, a PCRA petition must be filed within one year of entry of judgment. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545 (“PCRA time-bar”). However, in Commonwealth v. Holmes, 933 A.2d 57, 65 (Pa. 2007) the Supreme Court interpreted 42 Pa.C.S. § 5505’s 30 day period in which a trial court may modify or rescind any order to recognize an exception for the trial court’s “inherent power to correct patent errors despite the absence of traditional jurisdiction.” The question presented in this case is whether the PCRA time-bar prevents a court from exercising its inherent power to correct obvious errors in sentencing after the occurrence of the PCRA time-bar. In Commonwealth v. Jackson, 30 A.3d 516, 522-23 (Pa. Super. 2011) the Superior Court held that the time-bar applies regardless of whether there was an obvious error:

Although the one-year deadline is strictly applied, it nevertheless provides sufficient opportunity to discover errors in sentences. If an error exists in a sentence that is clearly erroneous such that a trial court could modify the order absent statutory authority under [S]ection 5505, the petitioner is afforded adequate time under [S]ection 9545 to discover the error during the course of the direct appeals process or within one year of the judgment becoming final. Beyond this time-period, courts are without jurisdiction to offer any form of relief. Id. at 522-23 (some citations omitted, emphases added).

The Superior Court followed its holding in Jackson in the present case, reversing the trial court’s order, which vacated Rodney McGee’s 1996 sentence for attempted homicide as imposed in two 1996 orders, in response to McGee’s 2020 “Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence” in which he claimed that there was an obvious incompatibility between the two 1996 sentencing orders, which gave rise to an obvious error. As the Superior Court explained, any petition filed after the judgment of sentence becomes final must be treated as a PCRA petition, and there is no alternate relief route based on a court’s inherent authority to correct errors:

In Jackson, this Court interpreted Holmes in the context of an untimely PCRA petition, stating “we have found no authority wherein the appellate courts of this Commonwealth have recognized a PCRA court’s inherent jurisdiction to consider a claim filed after the expiration of the PCRA filing period.” Id. at 519; see also Commonwealth v. Whiteman, 204 A.3d 448, 451 (Pa. Super. 2019). We concluded that while “Holmes [] recognized the limited authority of a trial court to correct patent errors in sentences absent statutory jurisdiction under section 5505; it did not establish an alternate remedy for collateral relief that sidesteps the jurisdictional requirements of the PCRA.” Jackson, 30 A.3d at 52.

Slip Op. at 5.

Further, the Superior Court reasoned:

We reiterate that no court has jurisdiction to hear an untimely PCRA petition. Commonwealth v. Monaco, 996 A.2d 1076, 1079 (Pa. Super. 2010) (quoting Commonwealth v. Robinson, 837 A.2d 1157, 1161 (Pa. 2003)). A petitioner must file a PCRA petition within one year of the date on which the petitioner’s judgment of sentence became final, unless the petitioner can plead and prove one of the three statutory exceptions, i.e., governmental interference, unknown facts, or a newly-recognized, retroactive constitutional right. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1). A petitioner must file a petition invoking one of these exceptions “within one year of the date the claim could have been presented.” 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(2). If a petition is untimely, and the petitioner has not pled and proven an exception, “neither this Court nor the trial court has jurisdiction over the petition. Without jurisdiction, we simply do not have the legal authority to address the substantive claims.”

Slip Op. at 7-8 (citations omitted).

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to consider the issue, as stated by petitioner:

Does the Superior Court’s continued application herein and elsewhere of its holding in Commonwealth v. Jackson, 30 A.3d 516 (Pa. Super. 2011), that a trial court’s inherent jurisdiction to correct patent and obvious mistakes in its records and orders is subject to the time-bar provisions of the PCRA improperly constrict trial courts’ jurisdiction, improperly expand the scope of the time-bar, and/or conflict with this Honorable Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Holmes, 933 A.2d 57 (Pa. 2007), which recognized that claims invoking said jurisdiction are not cognizable under the PCRA and thus not subject to the time-bar?


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