January 27th, 2023 by Rieders Travis in Criminal

 In re Private Complaint Filed by Luay Ajaj, 2023 Pa. LEXIS 56 (S. Ct. January 19, 2023) (Brobson, J.)   Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 506 (Rule 506) authorizes private citizens to file criminal complaints against other persons before the appropriate issuing authority. Before doing so, however, the private criminal complaint must first be submitted to an attorney for the Commonwealth for approval or disapproval. If the attorney for the Commonwealth disapproves the filing of the private criminal complaint with the issuing authority, Rule 506 thereafter permits the private complainant to petition the court of common pleas to review the disapproval decision. In this discretionary appeal, we consider whether the Superior Court erred when it affirmed a decision by the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Criminal Division (trial court), which overturned the decision of the Montgomery County District Attorney (DA). The DA had disapproved the private criminal complaint. We hold that, when reviewing a prosecutor’s decision disapproving a private criminal complaint under Rule 506, a court of common pleas may only overturn that decision if the private complainant demonstrates that the disapproval decision amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. In so holding, we denounce the prior rubric, where the applicable standard of review depended on the asserted basis for the prosecutor’s disapproval decision. See, e.g.Benz, 565 A.2d at 767-68In re Wilson, 879 A.2d at 214-15. In addition, for purposes of determining whether the prosecutor’s disapproval decision amounted to bad faith, we adopt the definition of bad faith advanced by Justice Cappy in his opinion in support of reversal in Brown II and hold that bad faith is demonstrated when the prosecutor acted with a fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt purpose. See Brown II, 708 A.2d at 87 (Cappy, J., opinion in support of reversal). We note that the adoption of the foregoing standard of review ensures that a court of common pleas will afford proper deference to the discretionary decision of the prosecutor—a member of the executive branch of the Commonwealth’s government. See Brown II, 708 A.2d at 84-85. A court of common pleas is tasked with the responsibility of determining whether the prosecutor’s disapproval decision amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. There is simply nothing about any such determination that requires a court of common pleas to exercise discretion and, as a result, it would be improper for an appellate court to review a court of common pleas’ determination for an abuse of discretion. While we are sympathetic to Father’s plight in his efforts to reunite with his children and return them to the United States, sympathy cannot guide our decision today. Based upon the record before us, we cannot conclude that the DA’s decision to disapprove the Complaint—i.e., to decline to bring charges against Mother for interference with the custody of her children and concealing the whereabouts of her children—amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. In other words, Father has not alleged nor is there any evidence in the record to suggest that the DA’s decision was made with a fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt purpose, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. Rather, the record demonstrates that the DA had sound reasons for his disapproval of the Complaint due to the myriad of evidentiary challenges associated with bringing charges against Mother—specifically, (1) the DA’s Office’s inability to investigate properly Father’s accusations against Mother given that all of the witnesses, other than Father, are located in Iraq and that the relevant conduct occurred in Iraq, and (2) the DA’s Office’s inability to prove that Mother, and not her “powerful uncles,” committed the alleged crimes given that the allegations set forth in the Complaint mainly surround the actions of Mother’s uncles, not Mother. We note, however, that Rule 506(B)(2) specifically requires the prosecutor to state the reasons for his or her disapproval decision on the complaint form. Thus, we caution attorneys for the Commonwealth, in the future, to include any reason upon which they intend to rely to support their disapproval decisions on the complaint form.  We also note that a private complainant, who seeks to have a court of common pleas review a prosecutor’s disapproval decision, and the prosecutor, who seeks to defend a disapproval decision, are entitled to a full and fair opportunity to develop a record of disputed material facts. While we recognize that a “private criminal complainant has no right to an evidentiary hearing in connection with [a court of common pleas’] review of the [prosecutor’s] decision to disapprove the private criminal complaint,” In re Wilson, 879 A.2d at 212-13, there are circumstances where an evidentiary hearing may be necessary, particularly where, as here, the prosecutor asserts policy-based reasons in support of his or her disapproval determination. In those circumstances, unsworn oral argument from the prosecutor is insufficient to create a proper record for appellate review.  This Court cannot interfere with the prosecutor’s discretionary decision given that the evidence of record does not establish that the DA’s disapproval decision was improper. For all of these reasons, we conclude that Father failed to demonstrate that the DA’s decision to disapprove the Complaint amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. Accordingly, we reverse the Superior Court’s order.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]



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