The ever-expanding area of technology -- GPS tracking devices and threats via Facebook -- was the subject of several of the Pennsylvania Superior Court's most controversial and important decisions of the year.
But its most dramatic decision came at the end of the year when the frontline appeals court reversed the criminal conviction of the first Catholic Church administrative official to have been charged with endangering minors in connection with the priest sex-abuse scandal.
Though the court had one fewer judge sitting on the bench after Correale F. Stevens, then its president judge, was elevated to the state Supreme Court in July, the Superior Court handled the full range of cases, and issued important decisions on topics ranging from whether an expert can reference a patient's smoking history to the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act's statute of repose.
On Dec. 26, the court issued its decision to reverse the conviction of Monsignor William J. Lynn, who was the first Catholic Church administrative official convicted of endangering the welfare of children abused by other priests. A Philadelphia jury found him guilty in June 2012.
President Judge John T. Bender wrote that the monsignor was not the direct supervisor of any of the alleged victims and, therefore, was not covered as a principal under the pre-amended endangering the welfare of children statute. The president judge was joined by Judge Christine Donohue and Senior Judge John L. Musmanno.
Many of the court's other most-closely-watched decisions dealt with either insurance litigation or the application and legal implication of emerging technologies.
In Commonwealth v. Schildt, the court ruled that the accuracy of an alcohol breath test is a matter to be addressed at trial, and not before. The ruling overturned Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lawrence F. Clark Jr.'s controversial decision barring alcohol breath test evidence in a DUI case. The ruling was believed to have an impact on thousands of DUI cases pending across the state.
The court also weighed in on the growing issue of online postings, parsing out commenters' rights and the repercussions for certain statements. In AmerisourceBergen v. John Does 1 and 2, the court ruled that online commenters have no constitutional right to falsely attribute nonsatirical postings to someone with a direct connection to the subject matter. The court found that two John Doe defendants could not appeal a trial court's interlocutory order requiring an Internet service provider to reveal their identities because they failed to establish that they had a First Amendment right to pose online as a high-level AmerisourceBergen Corp. executive and post commercial information about the company in a website's comments section.
The court also found that posting a sexually insulting comment on Facebook constitutes the crime of harassment. The decision upheld a teenager's criminal conviction.
The court also ruled, in Commonwealth v. Hunter, that text messages exchanged between a married couple should be admitted as evidence in a criminal prosecution where it is alleged the wife brutally beat her husband's 4-year-old son. The decision carves out an exception to the state's spousal communication privilege law.
In Commonwealth v. Burgos and Commonwealth v. Arthur, the court also offered guidance regarding evidence uncovered after law enforcement officers use GPS devices to track criminal suspects.
Also, in Commonwealth v. Rushing, the court found that law enforcement agencies must have probable cause before using real-time data to track a suspect's cellphone.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.