Appeals court: Sandy Township man’s sentence goes too far

Clearfield County judge had imposed condition not related to crime committed

County common pleas judges have the power to impose conditions when they sentence a defendant for a criminal violation, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court last week ruled in a Clearfield County case that those conditions must relate to the crime that was committed.

The case before the appeals court’s three-judge panel involved a Sandy Township resident, Russell Philip Gibson, 60, who was convicted of harassment of his girlfriend that occurred on Dec. 7, 2017, when the couple got into a confrontation in Gibson’s home.

He was charged with terroristic threats and simple assault. A jury acquitted him of those charges.

Gibson was also charged with harassment, a summary offense that was decided by the trial judge, Fredric J. Ammerman, following the jury’s verdicts.

Ammerman found Gibson guilty of harassment — for admittedly shoving the girlfriend — and placed him probation for 90 days.

Gibson, through his attorney, Matthew Russell Swisher, appealed to the Superior Court, contending he should have been found not guilty of the harassment charge because the jury’s not guilty verdicts on the other two charges showed his girlfriend’s testimony was considered not credible.

The Superior Court, however, found that the jury and the judge’s differing verdicts was consistent, and it upheld the guilty verdict for harassment.

The judge however, added a condition to Gibson’s sentence that Superior Court found not appropriate.

He ordered Gibson, in addition to a probationary sentence, to clean up his yard, which was the subject of another case brought by the Sandy Township code enforcement officers.

“This constitutes a challenge to the legality of the trial court’s sentence and is a question of law subject to this court’s review,” according to the opinion issued by the appeals court Judges James G. Colins, who wrote the opinion, Alice D. Dubow and Maria McLaughlin.

“Judgment of sentence requiring (Gibson) to remove scrap, garbage and other debris from his property and bring the property into compliance with all Sandy Township Code requirements is vacated,” the Colins opinion stated.

It ordered Gibson to be resentenced.

The Superior Court explained that county judges, according to the state sentencing code, have the power to impose conditions they deem necessary to assist a defendant in leading a law-abiding life.

They can order that he obtain a job, participate in community service, undergo medical or psychiatric treatment, attend classes, stay away from “disreputable places,” make restitution and many other conditions, but the court concluded, “None of the specific conditions listed … provides that the defendant may be compelled to maintain his property in compliance with local ordinances or cure or abate conditions on property that he owns.”

The conditions must bear “some reasonable relationship to the conduct or crime of which the defendant has been found guilty,” the Superior Court determined.

The prosecution argued that the county judge’s cleanup order was a type of community service requirement, but the Superior Court retorted, “We do not agree,” noting community service is specifically authorized as a condition in the sentencing code that can be imposed.

Another condition of the trial judge’s sentence was that Gibson refrain from using alcohol.

The Superior Court reported the confrontation between Gibson and his girlfriend occurred when the two were drinking beer and the girlfriend became upset when Gibson received a telephone call from another woman.

Gibson became upset when the girlfriend said she was going to leave and was taking the dog with her.