Commonwealth v. Mochan, 177 Pa. Super. 454 (1955)

Case Name: Commonwealth v. Mochan
Citation: 177 Pa. Super. 454 (1955)

Facts: Mochan was indicted for making numerous harassing phone calls to a woman. He was convicted of a misdemeanor under common law because his act was not a criminal offense under any Pennsylvania statute.

Issue: Whether the court can convict a defendant under common law when his actions did not constitute a criminal offense under state statute.

Defendant’s argument: nulla poena sine lege – no punishment without law. The defendant argues that he cannot be convicted of an action that is not illegal.

State’s argument: The state’s common law is sufficiently broad to allow a court to act and declares that “whatever openly outrages decency and is injurious to public morals is a misdemeanor at common law.” The defendant’s actions fit this criterion; therefore, the court can charge and convict him of a misdemeanor.

Court’s reasoning: The question is whether the alleged crimes could have been prosecuted and punished under common law. Because the controlling principles are broad, “[a]ny act is indictable at common law which from its nature scandalously affects the morals or health of the community…”

Holding: The charges correctly identified the offense as a common law misdemeanor.

Dissent: This allows the courts to supersede the legislature’s power. Although common law is part of the state’s law, our country has had 200 years of the legislative branch determining which actions require punishment. This is a slippery slope as “there is nothing to prevent our invasion of the legislative field except our own self restraint.”

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)

Facts: Duncan was convicted of simple battery (a misdemeanor) and was sentenced to serve 60 days in the parish prison and pay a fine of $150. Duncan sought a jury trial but was denied because the Louisiana Constitution grants jury trials only in cases in which capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor may be imposed.

Defendant’s Argument: A trial by jury is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and protects against arbitrary rule, which is one of the major themes in our country’s settlement.

State’s Argument: If a right to a jury trial is granted in every criminal case, the state’s resources will be exhausted. Also, it is not wise to allow “laymen” to determine the facts because they are untrained. Furthermore, if the court holds that the 14th Amendment assures a right to a jury trial, it will “cast doubt on the integrity of every trial conducted without a jury.”

Judgment: Reversed and remanded.

Court’s Reasoning: The right to a jury trial in a criminal case is fundamental and present in the 6th Amendment. The 14th Amendment should incorporate this right because it is so “fundamental to the American scheme of justice.”

Dissent: The right to a jury trial varies from state to state. The state should be allowed to govern its own citizens and if its own citizens want the right to a jury in all criminal cases, they can seek it through the political process.