Commonwealth v. Matthews, Pennsylvania Superior Court (May 26, 2015)
Commonwealth v. Matthews is a very interesting, recent PA criminal appeals case involving convictions for possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (i.e., drug dealing). The defendant in the case appealed his convictions, arguing that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory (favorable) evidence which caused prejudice. This is known as a Brady violation.
What’s a Brady Violation?
Under Brady v. Maryland, a U.S. Supreme Court case, the prosecution has an obligation to disclose all exculpatory information material to the guilt or punishment of an accused, including evidence which can impeach a witness. Impeachment evidence is basically any evidence which conflicts with a witness’ expected trial testimony. In other words, if you expect a witness to testify to “X” at trial, but you know that the witness has previously stated “Y,” then you are under an obligation to disclose that evidence.
The standard to win a criminal appeal or Post Conviction Relief Act petition due to a Brady violation is quite high. The defendant has to prove the following:
- the prosecutor withheld evidence,
- the evidence, whether exculpatory or impeaching, is helpful to the defendant, and
- the failure to disclose the evidence prejudiced the defendant’s case.
Summary of the Facts
Two Philadelphia Police officers were on patrol in a purported “high-crime” area in Philadelphia. The officers testified that they observed behavior which led them to believe that defendant Matthews was engaging in a drug sale with another individual. After Matthews was stopped and searched, officers uncovered a prescription bottle containing about 40 bags of crack cocaine totaling roughly 2 grams. No other evidence of drug selling was uncovered on Matthews, such as scales, known cutting agents, etc.
At trial, Matthews argued that he had a serious drug problem and also argued that the drugs were solely for his own personal use. Therefore, he could not have been guilty of the drug dealing charge. To counter this, the prosecution presented evidence that Matthews did not look like a typical drug user and also argued this to the jury. Matthews’ first trial resulted in a hung jury on the drug dealing charge (possession with intent to deliver). A mistrial was declared, and he was subsequently convicted on that charge after a second trial.
Brady Evidence at Issue in the Case
The Brady evidence at issue in the case was written statements of the arresting officers which were made during an Internal Affairs investigation. In those statements, the arresting officers indicated that Matthews looked extremely intoxicated when he was arrested. These statements conflicted with the officers’ trial testimony and were only provided to the defense after the second trial had already concluded. Matthews immediately raised the issue with the trial court, which refused to order a new trial, and he was sentenced to 3 years of probation. Matthews then filed an appeal with the Superior Court.
Superior Court’s Analysis of this Brady Issue
The court found that the statements of the officers made during the Internal Affairs investigation raised an issue as to whether Matthews possessed the drugs for personal use, rather than with the intent to sell them. Therefore, the case was remanded back to the trial court for a full hearing on the issue of whether the statements were in fact Brady evidence and whether the failure to turn them over to the defense caused prejudice.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the case is remanded back to the trial court.
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