This was an appeal out of Philadelphia County, and the lead up to the appeal was this.  Antoine Motley had been given a sentence of 15 to 30 years imprisonment followed by 10 years of probation on robbery and gun charges.  His sentencing was in June of 2012.

Motley did originally file an appeal, but the Superior Court upheld Motley’s conviction and sentence because of “his failure to develop any meaningful argument” on appeal.  Later, Motley sought post-conviction relief, and he had his appellate rights reinstated, giving him a second bite at the apple. In this second appeal, therefore, Motley argued that his sentence was illegal because it was based on a mandatory minimum, a conclusion he came to because of a department-of-corrections (DOC) form that was attached to his sentencing order, which had a box checked “yes” under the heading “Mandatory Sentence.”

The Superior Court, first, dispelled of this argument quickly.  The Court noted that the DOC form did not constitute part of the sentencing order because, “[i]n Pennsylvania, the text of the sentencing order . . . is determinative of the court’s sentencing intentions and the sentence imposed.”  Nevertheless, the Superior Court did, interestingly, declare Motley’s sentence illegal but not for the reasons Motley argued; the Court found Motley’s sentence was illegal because of arguments the Commonwealth made on appeal.

The Commonwealth noted that the trial court imposed an illegal sentence by not imposing a mandatory minimum against Motley.  Although “the Commonwealth did not raise this sentencing claim before the trial court, nor exercise its statutory right to appeal from the trial court’s failure to apply the mandatory sentences,” the Superior Court held that it saw no reason why the Commonwealth could not challenge the court’s failure to impose a mandatory sentence under Supreme Court precedent.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had previously held the following:

[T]hat where a sentencing court is required to impose a mandatory minimum sentence, and that mandatory minimum sentence affects a trial court’s traditional sentencing authority or the General Assembly’s intent in fashioning punishment for criminal conduct, a defendant’s challenge thereto sounds in legality of sentence and is therefore nonwaivable.

The Superior Court believed that there was no reason why the Commonwealth should not get the benefit of this rule as well.  Therefore, what started as Motley’s complaint of an illegal sentence turned into the Commonwealth’s complaint of an illegal sentence for a different reason, even though the issue had not been raised before.  And the Superior Court noted, in a footnote, that its ruling “will result in the trial court’s imposing further lengthier sentences for [Motley’s] two robbery convictions.”

The case should serve as a reminder to appellants of the strategy involved in sometimes letting “sleeping dogs lie” and not invoking the jurisdiction of the appellate courts.