Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Trial Court Can Sometimes Hear Ineffectiveness Claims

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ November 13, 2013

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Commonwealth v. Holmes on October 30, where it held that the trial court, under the discretion of the judge, can hear post-sentence ineffective assistance of counsel claims under two circumstances: 1) when there are “extraordinary circumstances” that warrant the trial court hearing the issue, and 2) when the defendant seeks to litigate multiple allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel and expressly waives the right to later review by way of PCRA.

The court identified several reasons for why a defendant should be allowed to file ineffective assistance of counsel claims as post-sentence motions. Timeliness was chief among them. The court reasoned that, especially in cases where the defendant has been sentenced to a relatively short term of imprisonment (like the three to six years in Holmes), time is of the essence, and ineffective assistance of counsel claims through a PCRA take much longer to litigate than do post-sentence motions. Allowing for a more timely resolution of multiple ineffectiveness claims benefits many different parties. In addition to the defendant, who obviously has an interest in having these issues resolved in a timely manner, the Commonwealth is also benefited, in that cases reach finality sooner, and the Commonwealth will know sooner whether a case needs to be retried. Both parties can benefit when the facts of the case are fresher in the witnesses’ minds. Finally, allowing these allegations in a post-sentence motion also ensures that the issue is heard before the same judge that heard the case.

The Commonwealth’s primary argument against allowing this was that defendants would essentially be allowed “two bites at the apple” for litigating the ineffectiveness claims: first through the post-sentence motion, and second through a PCRA, if the post-sentence motion fails. To alleviate this concern, the Supreme Court held that the defendant must expressly waive his right to litigate the ineffectiveness claim through a PCRA. The defendant can, however, still file a PCRA alleging governmental interference, new facts, or a new constitutional right with a retroactive effect.

It is important to remember that not all claims of ineffective assistance of counsel can be litigated through post-sentence motions. The court in Holmes made it clear that there must be either extraordinary circumstances or multiple allegations of ineffective assistance, generally when the defendant also has received a short sentence. Finally, whether or not the trial court will hear the issue is solely within the trial court’s discretion.


  1. John Safarowicz says:

    what if your sentence is over like a light probation and you still want to file a PCR does the trial judge still have the discretion,I mean you have exhausted all your appeals and your paperwork is on time filed with the lower court and then while your paperwork is filed on time your sentence ends does a trial judge still have the discretion to hear the PCR a and have an evidentiary hearing

  2. No, that has been a huge bone of contention lately. Lawyers across the state are alleging that Judges sit on the PCRA Petition without taking action until the sentence is up to “moot” it. At that point they need not take any further action.

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