In a significant ruling on May 13, 2021, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held in Commonwealth v. Christopher Banks (2021 PA Super 95) that a voluntary severance of charges will result in a blanket inability to invoke double jeopardy protections in any subsequent trial, even if the first trial resulted in an acquittal.
Following a road rage incident and a high-speed chase, Banks was charged with numerous firearms offenses, including 18 Pa.C.S. §6105 (Persons Not to Possess a Firearm). Prior to trial, Banks requested a severance of the §6105 charge, and the trial court subsequently granted the request. This is a common strategy in Pennsylvania. A conviction for §6105 requires the Commonwealth to prove that a defendant has a prior conviction for one or more specific crimes. Since such evidence can be highly prejudicial, defendants charged with violating §6105 often request bi-furcated or separate trials.
Banks was tried for and acquitted of violating §6105 in his first trial. Prior to his second trial, Banks moved to dismiss the remaining firearms charges, arguing that the jury already concluded that he did not possess a firearm. The motion was denied, and Banks was convicted of several offenses.
On appeal, Banks argued—among other things—that his trial and conviction for the remaining firearm offenses violated the Double Jeopardy Clauses of both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.
The Superior Court rejected this argument, explaining that a criminal defendant’s voluntary severance of charges results in a blanket inability to successfully invoke double jeopardy to bar the subsequent trial if he or she is acquitted in the first. Therefore, because Banks requested to have the §6106 charge tried separately, his acquittal for that offense had no impact upon the Commonwealth’s ability to pursue the remaining firearm charges at his second trial.
Furthermore, the Superior Court also examined the claim under the concept of collateral estoppel, a common law doctrine that prevents re-litigation between parties of an issue in which that particular issue has been previously decided by a competent legal forum. Examining the factual issues in each trial, the Court concluded that no relief was due under this rule either.
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