On March 30th, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania decided Commonwealth v. Thompson, holding that the Commonwealth cannot establish that it exercised “due diligence” in seeking a defendant’s presence at trial by simply presenting testimony that it was standard practice in the DA’s Office to issue writs to secure the presence of defendants.
On December 4th, 2009, the defendant Thompson was arrested and charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. In October 2011, the trial court denied Thompson’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 600, which was designed to prevent unnecessary prosecutorial delay in bringing a defendant to trial. The trial court then convicted Thompson in January 2012 and sentenced him to 5-10 years’ incarceration.
Thompson appealed his conviction, challenging the trial court’s Rule 600 analysis. Thompson specifically noted that the trial court had acknowledged that two significant delays, resulting in an aggregate delay of 309 days, had occurred in which Thompson was not transported from state custody. While the trial court had deemed these delays to be “administrative error,” Thompson alleged that the delays should have been attributed to the Commonwealth instead. The Superior Court held that there was no evidence to support the trial court’s analysis, and subsequently remanded the case. The Superior Court instructed the trial court to find whether it had tried Thompson within the time period required by Rule 600, and if not, whether the Commonwealth had acted with due diligence in securing Thompson’s presence in court.
Rule 600 requires that a defendant’s trial must commence within 365 days from the date on which the complaint is filed. This is known as the mechanical run date. Any delays caused by the defendant will be excused and result in an adjusted run date. Additionally, any delays which occur, despite “due diligence” from the Commonwealth, will also be excused and further extend the run date. If the delay is attributed to the Commonwealth, it must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it exercised due diligence, which merely requires a showing of reasonable effort. In Thompson’s case, the Superior Court found that after adjusting the mechanical run date based on delays caused by Thompson, the new run date was September 22nd, 2011. His trial commenced on October 25th, 2011.
Upon remand, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing in which the Commonwealth introduced testimony from an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) who explained that her file did not indicate whether the Commonwealth had sought a writ for Thompson’s transfer, but that seeking the writ was such common practice in the DA’s office that she normally would not have marked her file in such a way. The trial court found this testimony credible and concluded that the Commonwealth had demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that it had exercised due diligence in securing Thompson’s presence at trial. Thompson then appealed this ruling alleging that the trial court had committed an abuse of discretion by denying his Rule 600 motion to dismiss.
The Commonwealth attempted to use the ADA’s testimony as evidence of its due diligence, but the Superior Court held that a mere assertion of due diligence is insufficient, and the Commonwealth must demonstrate affirmatively that it attempted to secure the defendant’s presence. The Commonwealth failed to do this, and the Superior Court held that the failure of the DA’s office to keep adequate records of its requests for writs militated against its assertion of due diligence.
In other words, the ADA’s testimony that it was common practice for the prosecutor’s office to seek writs was not sufficient, and evidence that a writ was sought on a specific date was needed in order to establish due diligence. Thus, the delay was inexcusable, and the Superior Court consequently vacated Thompson’s sentence, dropped the charges against him, and discharged him from incarceration.
Here is the Superior Court’s opinion in its entirety.
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