There has been a Major Change in Pennsylvania Divorce Law

You may now be granted a divorce after just one, rather than two years, even if your spouse refuses to cooperate.

Pennsylvania has two “no-fault” grounds for divorce: Mutual Consent, and Irretrievable Breakdown. Mutual Consent requires the cooperation of the spouses. If the parties choose, a divorce can be fmalized after ninety days has passed from the date of separation. If, however, one of the parties refuses to cooperate, a divorce cannot go forward until the one year statutory period of separation has passed to establish an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Divorce is still not automatic after the one year has passed. In most cases, this change means that one spouse’s refusal to consent to divorce stops being a barrier against moving forward toward closure after one rather than two years.

The most obvious effect of this change is shortening the period in which one spouse may be obligated to provide support to his/her spouse before entry of a final decree. One party can file for divorce, but the other has no obligation to sign the consent forms that would let the divorce process move forward under Mutual Consent. Once the court requires one spouse to pay support to the other each month, there is often no motivation for the individual receiving support to cooperate with the divorce process. Many people stretch their advantage until their spouse can move things forward under the Irretrievable Breakdown ground. Prior to this change, a spouse receiving support and dependant upon it could refuse to execute the paperwork necessary to finalize a divorce and continue to collect for at least two years. That period is now cut in half.

For people paying spousal support, the reduced waiting period is good news. If, on the other hand, you are a Pennsylvania spouse who receives support, you now will have a much smaller period oftime before you can be compelled to actively participate in the process of working your way toward the economic resolution of your marriage.

Criminal Records Are Now Automatically Sealed After Ten Years

Both the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate have passed and Governor Wolf has signed legislation to seal low-level criminal records of people who go ten years without another arrest. This is great news for anyone who has been unfortunate to have had a minor brush with the law and had that one event create problems in seeking jobs, housing or any number of other areas for years afterward.

The Courts and Commonwealth will now automatically seal from the public the records of second and third degree misdemeanor convictions after ten years so long as that individual has remained arrest free during that period.

Pennsylvania’s current “clean slate” law allows for sealing of low-level records, but only if a petition is filed by the individual whose record is to be sealed and granted by the Court.

This new law does not apply to violent offenses related to endangering a person, firearms, sexual offenses, cruelty to animals, and corruption of minors, even if graded as a misdemeanor.

As we know, people who have a criminal conviction can face all sorts of problems due to an isolated incident that took place years before. With the Commonwealth now sealing from public view minor criminal convictions from over ten years ago, many of our friends and family can have the opportunity to move on with their lives and not be stigmatized by an incident from long ago that is out of character for the person they are today.

Stopping to see if a driver needs assistance does not give a police officer the right to search your vehicle

In Commonwealth v. Livingstone, our Supreme Court held that a driver stopped by the side of the road was not subject to a warrantless search of her vehicle when the only purpose of the investigating officer’s stop was to see if she needed some assistance.

In this case, the officer, in a marked vehicle, came across an individual sitting in the driver’s seat of her car entering an address into the vehicle’s navigation system. He activated his emergency lights and pulled along side her vehicle.

The encounter evolved into an investigation, with the driver subjected to field sobriety tests and an arrest for driving under the influence. At trial, she filed a motion to suppress evidence based on the illegal nature of the stop and search. Her motion was denied by the trial court. Relying on the public service exception to the warrant requirement, the trial court’s ruling was upheld by the Superior Court.

In its review of the facts surrounding the case, the Supreme Court found no reason to doubt the investigating officer’s testimony that he pulled alongside Ms. Livingstone’s vehicle simply to see to see whether she needed assistance. Those facts established that she did not. Indeed, the investigating officer conceded that he had not received a report of a motorist in need of assistance, and did not observe anything that outwardly suggested a problem with Ms. Livingstone’s vehicle. The Court also noted that the weather was not inclement. Ms. Livingstone, who was inside her vehicle, did not have her hazard lights on.

When an officer is unable to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts which would reasonably suggest that assistance was needed, he/she cannot rely on the public servant exception to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine to justify the detention and search of a citizen and his/her vehicle.

For purposes of a motion to suppress evidence, the Court concluded that a reasonable person in Ms. Livingstone’s position would not feel free to leave after the investigating officer pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle. Therefore, she was seized and subject to an investigative detention. Under these circumstances, the trooper ‘s seizure of Ms. Livingstone was not justified under the public servant exception. The evidence obtained as a result of this detention of Ms. Livingstone should have been suppressed by the trial court.

Philadelphia Treatment Courts

Should you be arrested in Philadelphia, there are now options available so you can address both the case before the court and the issues that may have brought you there so you can successfully resolve both. Both Drug Treatment Court and Mental Health Court help participants get back on their feet and reclaim their place in society while resolving their criminal cases less harshly than if they had proceeded through the system otherwise.

If an ongoing problem with drugs has led to your arrest and are a Philadelphia resident, you may be eligible for admission into Drug Treatment Court. Participants in the program are non-violent drug or drug related offenders with no more than any two previous non-violent adult convictions or juvenile adjudications/admissions/consent decrees. For purposes of this program, admission into an ARD program counts as a prior conviction. Most often, the lead charge to enter the program is possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. Individuals whose arrests involve guns or who are subject to a mandatory sentence based upon weight of the controlled substance are not eligible. Crimes that take place in a school zone, which carry mandatory sentences, are treated on a case-by-case basis.

Participants plead no contest and have the plea held in abeyance until completion of the program.

The program consists of four phases over a twelve month period. Each phase represents a graduated step towards sobriety and includes mandatory drug and alcohol treatment, regular urine screening, meetings with case managers, and attendance at monthly progress listings in Court before a supervising judge. Failure to comply with the requirements of the program will result in the participant receiving one of the program’s graduated sanctions.

Phase 1 lasts one month and focuses on non-medical detoxification and assessment of the participant. The assessment determines the severity of the participant’s substance abuse issues and whether or not the participant is in need of dual diagnosis treatment. Dual Diagnosis treatment focuses simultaneously on a participant’s substance abuse treatment and their mental health treatment. During Phase 1, a housing assessment is completed to establish whether the participant is in need of alternative housing.

Phase 2 lasts three months and is the most intensive treatment part of the program. In addition to treatment, the participant will receive needed life skills training and counseling.

Phase 3 lasts four months and focuses on relapse prevention as well as an aftercare plan for the participant. An aftercare plan facilitates the transition from treatment to a sober lifestyle. The participant may be encouraged to attend 12 step meetings, obtain a sponsor, and continue to work towards establishing a sober network.

Phase 4 lasts four months. During these four months the participant must maintain 100% abstinence from drugs and alcohol and is encouraged to implement their treatment aftercare plan. Any missed treatment sessions or relapses will hinder the participant’s progression through the program, causing their length of time in Drug Treatment Court to exceed the twelve month period.

Upon completion of the four phases, participants graduate, whereupon their no contest plea is withdrawn and charges are dismissed with prejudice.

If the participant remains crime-free and drug free and alcohol free during the following year, their case will be expunged. This ends up being a win-win for everyone involved.

For clients with serious mental health issues, another option available in Philadelphia is participation in Mental Health Court. This is a very hands-on program that is effective in helping its participants address and overcome their issues.

Participants in Mental Health Court are Philadelphia residents typically serving a county sentence and/or probation for a non-violent crime and have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Participants are accepted at the discretion of the District Attorney’s Office and after a careful review of their case.

As opposed to Drug Treatment Court, Mental Health Court is a re-entry program as opposed to a Diversion Court. Participants must be currently serving a sentence, and/or awaiting sentencing.

Mental Health Court is a collaborative, problem solving court. It provides an alterative to incarceration for non-violent felony offenders suffering from mental illness. The Court employs a multi disciplinary approach that combines intensive wrap-around treatment and individualized probation supervision. The court identifies individuals who are willing to accept a higher level of supervision in exchange for treatment outside the Philadelphia Prison System. Participants are monitored throughout the re-entry process through a continuum of care through Department of Behavioral Health treatment teams.

Participants periodically return to court in order to monitor compliance and progress. Those who show a record of compliance may earn rewards, which could include less frequent court dates/probation visits, or even early termination of their sentence.

Participants remain under the supervision of Mental Health Court until the presiding Judge decides they have: 1) complied with all the treatments goals 2) have met the maximum treatment they can receive 3) are living an independent life with mental health meds and/or treatment 4) and are not a danger to themselves or the community.

This program emphasizes encouragement and positive reinforcement to help its participants overcome the problems that brought them to court. It gives participants every opportunity to succeed.

Unlike Drug Treatment Court, there is no opportunity for expungment, as felony dispositions have already been entered in the participant’s case.