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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Overturns Commonwealth v. Ricker

24 Jul 2020, by Christian Lautenschleger in Court News, Criminal Defense
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Overturns Commonwealth v. Ricker

Written by Timothy Czekaj

In a critical decision on July 21, 2020 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that hearsay alone is not sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case at a Preliminary Hearing. The state Superior Court’s 2015 ruling, known as the “Ricker Rule”, has plagued criminal defense lawyers since it was first written. With the state Supreme Court’s new ruling, a necessary safeguard has been put in place to allow defense attorney to cross examine the alleged victim, or at least someone with firsthand knowledge, in crimes that rest primarily on the account of the victim. Up until now, the Commonwealth has been permitted to establish the required prima facie burden with nothing more than hearsay evidence of the charging officer. Thus, there was little to nothing to be gained from a Preliminary Hearing where the prosecution could meet its burden and move the case forward, while never having to subject a key witness to tests on credibility that come from cross-examination.

About Commonwealth v. Ricker and Pennsylvania v. McClelland

In 2015, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that hearsay evidence alone is sufficient to establish prima facie in a preliminary hearing, that is, it is sufficient for a case to go on to a full trial process. In this holding, the Superior Court went against established precedent, ignoring the 1990 case Commonwealth ex rel. Buchanan v. Verbonitz in the process.

Verbonitz held that hearsay evidence, in this case the testimony of a State Trooper who heard the seven-year-old victim’s account of abuse, is not sufficient prima facie evidence and found that the defendant’s right to due process had been violated.

Commonwealth v. Ricker (2015) defied this ruling and has frustrated defense attorney for years. The Superior court diverged from Verbonitz on the grounds that the justices did not have a unified rationale, the opinion of the two justice dissent was based on strong statutory analysis, and that Verbonitz was decided prior to 2013 changes to criminal statutes.

Pennsylvania v. McClelland (2020) has reversed this decision, holding that Verbonitz is still sound precedent, and that the admission of hearsay as the sole evidence for a prima facie case infringes upon defendants’ constitutional rights.

The Impact of the Ricker Rule

The constitutionality of the Ricker Rule has been heavily debated since its inception. While it protects victims from repeated painful and potentially traumatizing court appearances, it also skirts the line of due process and renders Preliminary Hearings nearly obsolete. With this new ruling, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania acknowledges the infringement of defendants’ rights that the Ricker Rule represents and restores important protections to defendants.

Defendants have the right to be faced with those who would testify against them, and the Ricker Rule violates this right and significantly complicated defense attorney’ ability to defend their clients and seek the truth. Now that it has been struck down, criminal defense attorney can more freely defend their clients.

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If you are facing criminal charges, Czekaj & Dusharm, LLC can help you protect your rights and build a strong defense. With over 20 years of combined experience, Timothy Czekaj and Timothy Czekaj are ready to help you throughout the legal process.

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