PA Supreme Court Finds Car Passenger Entitled to Suppression of Contraband in Illegally Stopped Car

Commonwealth v. Shabezz

In the case of Commonwealth v. Shabezz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has affirmed on appeal that a passenger in a vehicle may successfully move to suppress evidence which is recovered from the vehicle where the vehicle was illegally stopped. The passenger may move for suppression even if the passenger did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the vehicle.

This means that if you are the passenger in a car you do not own and the police stop and search the car and find something illegal, you may move to suppress the contraband due to the initial illegal stop. Previously, it was unclear whether a passenger had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of someone else’s car, and trial judges would frequently use that line of argument in order to deny motions to suppress. 

Motions to Suppress

The first line of defense to gun charges and in drug cases is often the motion to suppress. In cases where the prosecution cannot show that the police legally recovered the evidence in question, it may be possible to have the evidence excluded at trial and the case dismissed by litigating a motion to suppress. In Pennsylvania, it is typically not enough for the defendant to show only that some sort of illegal search occurred. The defendant must also show both that he or she has standing to challenge the search and that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that was searched. 

What is a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Standing is generally not an issue because Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that any defendant charged with a possessory offense has automatic standing to challenge the search and seizure that led to the recovery of the evidence. Reasonable expectation of privacy, however, is frequently an important issue. The defendant must show that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. If the defendant cannot show that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy which the police violated, then the court will deny the motion to suppress even if the police did something illegal. The prosecution bears the burden of showing that the police obtained the evidence in a lawful manner, but the defendant bears the burden of first showing that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.  

In many cases, reasonable expectation of privacy is relatively easy to understand. If you have drugs in your pocket, reasonable expectation of privacy is not going to be an issue because everyone will agree that you had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of your pocket. In other cases, it is clear that you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the police search your friend’s house when you are not in it and recover evidence which connects you to a crime, you will not be able to have that evidence suppressed even if police did not first obtain a search warrant. You simply do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in someone else’s house where you are not present or staying. Therefore, although the police may have violated your friend's constitutional rights, they have not violated yours rights, and you have no remedy.  

Appellate courts have recognized that the basis test for reasonable expectation of privacy is as follows:

An expectation of privacy will be found to exist when the individual exhibits an actual or subjective expectation of privacy and that expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. In determining whether a person’s expectation of privacy is legitimate or reasonable, the totality of the circumstances must be considered and the determination will ultimately rest upon a balancing of the societal interests involved. The constitutional legitimacy of an expectation of privacy is not dependent on the subjective intent of the individual asserting the right but on whether the expectation is reasonable in light of all the surrounding circumstances.

Thus, a defendant generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in houses or cars belonging to other people or in public places. At the same time, a defendant may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in certain places at work or in a restroom. 

In Commonwealth v. Shabezz, the Supreme Court held that a defendant-passenger need not show a reasonable expectation of privacy in a car which has been stopped illegally in order to have drugs or guns suppressed. In Shabezz, officers testified at a motion to suppress hearing that they observed what they believed to be a drug transaction and therefore stopped the car in which Shabezz was a passenger. Shabezz ran, and the police quickly caught him. They found marijuana and cash on him. They then searched the car from which he fled and found more marijuana, scales, packaging, some pills, and a gun. Prosecutors charged Shabezz with Possession with the Intent to Deliver.

The trial court, however, did not believe the police as to the reasons why they stopped the car. Although police testified to observing a drug transaction prior to stopping the car, they had completely failed to mention the drug transaction in any of the police reports which they prepared at the time of the arrest. They also testified that they were able to see the exchange of money for small objects from 45 feet away at night without binoculars. Therefore, the court granted the motion to suppress, finding that the initial stop of the vehicle was illegal. 

The prosecution appealed, and the appeal eventually reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the motion should have been denied because Shabezz was merely a passenger in a vehicle, and as a passenger, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. 

What Happens if the Police Illegally Stop a Car?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected that argument. It noted that there is a difference between standing and reasonable expectation of privacy. In order to prevail in a motion to suppress, the defendant must typically be able to show both. As explained, standing is easy – if you are charged with a possessory offense, you have standing. But reasonable expectation of privacy is often more complicated. In this situation, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that no reasonable expectation of privacy was required. The defendant must simply show that he was a passenger in the car and that the car was stopped illegally prior to the police finding the evidence which the prosecution wants to use. Here, the Court found that the initial police illegality of unlawfully stopping the vehicle tainted all of the subsequently recovered evidence. That evidence became fruit of the poisonous tree, and therefore, the trial court properly granted the motion to suppress.

The Court's opinion simplifies the remedy for challenging an illegal car stop. If the police stop a car illegally and find contraband, it does not matter if the defendant is the driver or the passenger. Both the driver and the passenger have had their rights violated by being seized without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Therefore, both the driver and the passenger now have the same remedy.

Charged with a crime? We Can Help 


If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers can help. We have successfully litigated countless motions to suppress in gun and drug cases, and we have helped clients favorably resolve all types of criminal charges. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is facing criminal charges or who may be under investigation. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today. 

PA Supreme Court: Retroactive Application of SORNA (Megan's Law) Unconstitutional

BREAKING NEWS: In the case of Commonwealth v. Muniz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) may not be applied retroactively without violating the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. In this new ruling, the Court held:

  1. SORNA’s registration provisions constitute criminal punishment;
  2. Retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violates the federal ex-post facto clause, and
  3. Retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violates the ex-post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

I will write more about the reasoning of this ruling in a later blog post, but for now, the ruling is so ground breaking that we wanted to post this news as quickly as possible. 

As some readers have learned through terrible experience, Pennsylvania law required many people to register as sex offenders either a) long after they had completed their sentence and probation, or b) to start registering as a sex offenders even when the offense to which pleaded or were found guilty was not an offense that required registration at the time. Many others found that they had pleaded or been found guilty to offenses which required ten years of registration or even no registration only to learn after a few years that ten years of registration had become a lifetime of Megan's Law registration. 

Prior to this new opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court repeatedly found that SORNA’s registration provisions should not be considered punishment. Therefore, retroactive application of registration requirements for those convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s effective date did not violate either the federal or state ex-post facto clauses.

As anyone who has been required to register knows, sex offender registration is one of the most severe punishments the law can impose. It is second only to incarceration, and in many cases, may be worse. Sex offender registration requires regular meetings with the State Police, prohibits contact with children (even when the original conviction had nothing to do with children and may not have even involved a sexual act of any kind), and results in the offender's image, place of employment, address, and vehicles being placed on the State Police website for the world to see. Given the severity of the punishment, particularly in the case of lifetime registration, countless people would have taken their cases to trial had they known at the time of the plea that they would later be required to register for life instead of for ten years or not at all. The risk of trial may have been well worth the reward of avoiding lifetime registration. This new ruling should bring relief to those in the position. 

This ruling should also help those who were originally required to register as Tier I & Tier II offenders but who have now been informed their offense is now a Tier III offense (required lifetime registration and check-ins with the state police every three months.)

If you pleaded guilty to a crime and were originally not required to register at all or were required to register only for a limited period of time and later found out that your tier changed, call us. We may very well be able to assist you. Your consultation is 100% free and confidential. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer today. 

PA Bench Warrants | Getting A Bench Warrant Lifted

Bench Warrants in Pennsylvania

If you have missed court as a complainant or a defendant, you may have a bench warrant. Bench warrants can be a serious problem because they can lead to the revocation and forfeiture of bail or a contempt citation and potential jail time. If you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest and would like assistance in turning yourself in and avoiding jail time as punishment for the warrant, our Philadelphia, PA criminal defense lawyers can help. Call or text 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. Although we provide general information about bench warrants here, we can help give you more specific advice on how to handle your individual case for the best possible results.

What will happen if I don’t go to court?

If you were subpoenaed for court as a defendant and miss your court date without letting the court know, you will almost certainly receive a bench warrant. You could also be held in contempt and have your bail revoked when you are eventually arrested on the warrant. The same could be true for a witness in a case. The Commonwealth does not always seek to arrest its witnesses when the witnesses fail to appear, but in some cases, the Commonwealth could obtain a material witness warrant for you if you were subpoenaed for court to testify as a witness and failed to appear. 

What is a bench warrant?

A bench warrant is an order issued by the judge directing any law enforcement officers with whom you come into contact to arrest you. This means that if you do not get the warrant taken care of and you get stopped by the police, the police will likely arrest you if they run your name and find out that you have a warrant. If you have an outstanding warrant, you could also run into problems when attempting to travel in and out of the country or by airplane. 

Are there any other punishments for missing court?

Eventually, you will likely get arrested or decide to turn yourself in. When you go before a judge to have the warrant lifted, there are other potential punishments that the judge could impose. For example, a judge could hold you in contempt, which can be punished by a fine or a jail sentence of up to six months. Additionally, the judge could revoke your bail if the judge concludes that you are a flight risk or the judge could raise your bail so that you have to pay more money in order to get released. You could also be required to pay a significant amount of money to the county or city if your bail is forfeited. In most counties in Pennsylvania, the defendant or the surety actually pays 10% of the bail amount. This means that if bail is set at $100,000, then the defendant would have to pay $10,000 in order to be released. If a judge finds that the defendant willfully missed court, then the defendant could be required to post the other $90,000.

How can I get a bench warrant lifted?

In most cases, the only way to get a bench warrant lifted is by turning yourself in. When you turn yourself in, the court must schedule a bench warrant hearing before a judge or commissioner within 72 hours. If the 72 hours falls on a weekend or holiday, then the hearing may be scheduled for the next regular business day. The judge who conducts the bench warrant hearing will lift the bench warrant and determine whether to reinstate and release you on the same bail, revoke bail, or raise the bail. Additionally, the prosecution may move for contempt, in which case you would have a contempt hearing.

In Philadelphia, you turn yourself in at the basement of the Criminal Justice Center. You must be there early in the morning, and then you will be seen that day and potentially released. The consequences are almost always less severe if you voluntarily turn yourself in and retain counsel to represent you at the bench warrant hearing. If you do not turn yourself in but get arrested, you will be taken to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and held until you can see the bench warrant judge from the prison for a video hearing.

What is a judge-only bench warrant?

A judge-only bench warrant means that when you get arrested on the warrant or turn yourself in, your bench warrant hearing will be held before the judge that originally issued the warrant. In Philadelphia, if you receive a normal bench warrant, then the warrant will be addressed by whichever judge happens to be assigned to bench warrant court on the day that you have your hearing. If you receive a judge-only warrant, then you will have the warrant addressed by the judge who issued it.

How long can they hold me on a bench warrant?

The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure provide that the hearing must be scheduled within 72 hours or on the next business day if the 72 hour period falls on a weekend or holiday. Once the warrant is lifted, you could still be held if the judge raises or revokes your bail. This is true both for criminal defendants and material witnesses.

What happens after the bench warrant is lifted?

Once the bench warrant is lifted, the judge will schedule the case for the next hearing. If you missed your preliminary hearing, then the judge would schedule the case for the preliminary hearing. If you missed your trial date, then the case would be scheduled for trial. It is relatively rare, but in some cases, the court may conduct a hearing or trial in your absence if the court finds that you willfully failed to appear. Thus, it is possible (but unlikely) that you may have been found guilty in absentia, in which case you would have to serve your sentence.

How can I find out if I have a bench warrant?

If you missed court as a defendant, you probably have a bench warrant. The best way to find out for sure is by retaining a lawyer. If you are facing criminal charges and have a bench warrant, we are happy to look it up for you and discuss representation in the case and getting the warrant lifted. You can also check the public court dockets by searching for your name at If you have a bench warrant, it will typically be indicated on the docket.  

Case Study: Bench Warrant Lifted and Charges Dismissed in Commonwealth v. E.K.

Our Philadelphia bench warrant lawyers have helped numerous clients resolve both recent and older bench warrants. For example, in the case of Commonwealth v. K.E., Attorney Goldstein assisted a client who learned that he had an unresolved twenty-year-old bench warrant for knowing and intentional possession of a controlled substance. K.E. had been arrested approximately two decades ago for two misdemeanor drug cases in different jurisdictions at around the same time. Although K.E. resolved one of the drug charges through participation in a treatment program, K.E. did not realize that he still had an outstanding warrant when he left the program.

K.E. moved out of state, rebuilt his life, and eventually obtained a job as a professional which required a great deal of travel for work. Over the years, K.E. had trouble re-entering the country after business trips and would be detained for up to 24 hours, but K.E. had never been arrested or informed that he had a warrant for his arrest and pending charges. K.E. had even been stopped for traffic tickets and never been told of the warrant. When returning from a recent trip, K.E. learned that he had a bench warrant from the old drug case and immediately contacted Attorney Goldstein. 

Attorney Goldstein put together a mitigation packet for the District Attorney's Office showing that K.E. completed drug treatment at the time, had remained clean for twenty years, and had gone on to have a successful career in another state. After receiving the packet, the District Attorney's Office agreed to lift the bench warrant and dismiss the charges without requiring K.E. to return to Philadelphia. 

Why should I retain a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer for help with my bench warrant? 

As the previous example illustrates, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully represented countless clients in criminal cases and in resolving bench warrants. Each case is different, and results are never guaranteed, but the odds of a successful outcome are significantly higher when you retain counsel and turn yourself in voluntarily. In many cases, we are able to have a client’s bail reinstated and the client released on the same day. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call or text 267-225-2545 to discuss your case today.

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney for a Bench Warrant Check Today

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What is Possession with the Intent to Deliver?

What is Possession with the Intent to Deliver (“PWID”)?

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. and Demetra Mehta, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. and Demetra Mehta, Esq.

Possession With the Intent to Deliver is a felony drug possession charge. It typically involves the possession and sale of illegal drugs such as marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin, and PCP. It can also apply to the possession and sale of prescription medications such as oxycodone, xanax, and percocet. 

Although there are a number of different types of drug charges under state and federal law, the main difference between drug charges and how serious they are is whether the prosecution alleges that the defendant sold or intended to sell the controlled substance in question.

Possession with the Intent to Deliver involves possessing illegal drugs or a controlled substance and either selling them or intending to sell them. This means that the defendant will typically be charged with PWID when police or other law enforcement allege that they either caught the defendant in the act of selling drugs or caught the defendant with a sufficient quantity of drugs such that it is fair to say that the defendant must have planned on selling them at a later date. In some cases involving lesser quantities of drugs, the police may still arrest a defendant for PWID where the defendant also posses items which suggest drug distribution and trafficking such as scales, new and unused packets which could be used to break up and package a larger amount of drugs into smaller, sellable sizes, significant amounts of money, and implements for cutting the drugs up. 

Is Possession with the Intent to Deliver a Felony in Pennsylvania? 

Possession with the Intent to Deliver is always an ungraded felony in Pennsylvania. The maximum sentence for a PWID conviction depends on the controlled substance in question. For a first offense, a marijuana conviction has a maximum sentence of five years, while crack cocaine has a maximum sentence of ten years, and the sale of heroin has a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Because PWID is always a felony, most defendants who are charged with PWID have a right to a preliminary hearing in the Philadelphia Municipal Court or before a Magisterial District Justice in the suburbs, and if the case proceeds beyond the preliminary hearing, then the trial would be heard in the Court of Common Pleas.

There is a limited exception for selling marijuana in that a first offense marijuana PWID charge in Philadelphia will be tried in the Philadelphia Municipal Court without the benefit of a preliminary hearing. Fortunately, a defendant who is convicted in the Municipal Court always has the right to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas for a brand new trial. In that case, the Municipal Court trial will serve the same effect as the preliminary hearing. However, pre-trial motions must still be litigated in the Municipal Court. 

How is Possession with the Intent to Deliver different from regular possession of a controlled substance? 

Demetra Mehta - Philadelphia Drug Possession Defense Attorney

Demetra Mehta - Philadelphia Drug Possession Defense Attorney

Possession with the Intent to Deliver is a felony charge, while Knowing and Intentional Possession of a controlled substance is a misdemeanor. PWID may be punished by substantial fines and jail time of up to 15 years for a first offense depending on the controlled substance in question. Knowing and Intentional Possession, however, may be punished by only up to one year of jail time and substantially lower fines for a first offense. Knowing and Intentional Possession could apply anytime the defendant possesses some kind of controlled substance without a prescription or illegal drug. PWID, however, requires both the possession of a controlled substance or illegal drug and the intent to sell that drug. PWID can also apply when the defendant is charged with growing or manufacturing some kind of drug, and it also applies to the possession or cultivation of marijuana plants. Therefore, possessing an illegal drug or controlled substance without a prescription can always qualify as Knowing and Intentional Possession, but the prosecution may only obtain a conviction for PWID when the prosecution can also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant sold or intended to sell the controlled substance. 

What are the defenses to Possession with the Intent to Deliver?

There are a number of potential defenses which could apply in a drug trafficking case. Potential defenses include:

  1. Pre-trial Motions - In every case, the prosecution must be able to prove that the evidence it obtained and wishes to use at trial was obtained in a legal manner. If the defense believes that the police may have conducted an illegal search or seizure, then the defense may file a Motion to Suppress the drugs, money, or paraphernalia which the police recovered as a result of the illegal search or seizure. Once the Motion to Suppress has been filed, the trial court will hold an evidentiary hearing. The prosecution will then have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the police did not violate the requirements of the Constitution in obtaining the evidence. If the prosecution cannot meet its burden, then the evidence could be suppressed and the charges dismissed. In other cases involving confidential informants, it may make sense to file a Motion to Reveal the Identity of the Confidential Informant. These motions are difficult to win, but in some cases, the defense has the right to know who the Confidential Informant was and have the opportunity to call that person as a witness at trial. Pre-trial Motions like the Motion to Suppress are extremely important in drug cases as the prosecution will often not be able to proceed if the police did something illegal. 
  2. Constructive Possession - In order to convict a defendant of selling drugs, the government is required to prove that the defendant either physically or constructively possessed the drugs. In many cases, police may observe behavior that appears suspicious and then find drugs or some other contraband in a "stash". In other cases, police may recover drugs which were hidden in a house or car and not physically on the defendant. In these types of cases, the prosecution will be required to prove that the defendant possessed the drugs - this means showing that the defendant both knew the drugs were there and that the defendant had the intent and power to control the drugs. Mere proximity to a stash or finding the defendant in a car that also has drugs in it is often not enough for the prosecution to obtain a conviction. Therefore, whether or not the defendant actually possessed the drugs may be a potential defense to a Possession with the Intent to Deliver charge.  
  3. Narcotics Experts - In cases where the police find a large quantity of drugs (or a smaller amount with some indicia that they were going to be sold) but do not actually catch the defendant in the act of selling the drugs, the prosecution will call a narcotics expert to testify. The prosecution expert will typically testify that there is something about the quantity of the drugs or the way in which they were packaged that suggests that they were possessed with the intent to deliver. Further, the Superior Court has affirmed convictions for PWID based solely on the possession of 33 packets of crack cocaine without any observed sales where the government's witness testified that a defendant in possession of that many packets would have possessed them with the intent to sell. Just as the prosecution may use expert witnesses, the defense also has the right to have an expert witness evaluate the evidence and potentially testify at trial as to whether the circumstances could have been indicative of personal use instead of sale. In case where the police did not observe any drug transactions, the use of a defense expert witness could be the difference between a conviction for felony Possession with the Intent to Deliver and misdemeanor Knowing and Intentional Possession. 
  4. Trial by Jury - In every criminal case where the charges are punishable by a year or more, the defense has the right to a jury trial. When the defendant elects to have a jury trial, the attorneys and the Court will select twelve jurors and two alternates to hear the case. The prosecution must convince all twelve jurors that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jurors are not unanimous, then there will not be a verdict. In that case, the prosecution may drop the charges, make a better offer, or elect to re-try the defendant. 

What sentence will I get for a Possession with the Intent to Deliver Conviction?

Zak Goldstein - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Zak Goldstein - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Both the federal system and New Jersey state courts have serious mandatory minimums for drug convictions. Pennsylvania, however, does not currently have any mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Therefore, the sentence for a drug conviction can vary tremendously as judges retain a great deal of discretion in determining what sentence to impose on any given defendant.

This judicial discretion is not unlimited, however, as judges are required to review and consider Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines prior to imposing a sentence, and a judge must be able to put reasons on the record for departing from the guidelines.

As a general rule, the severity of the sentence called for by the guidelines depends on the type of drug involved and the quantity of the drug. Convictions for trafficking in harder drugs like PCP and heroin will result in greater guideline sentences, while convictions related to marijuana will often result in much lower guideline sentences or even recommendations to the judge of probation. Given the wide variety in potential weights and drugs, it is impossible to make a blanket statement as to what type of sentence a defendant could receive for a drug conviction. However, once retained, our criminal defense lawyers can review the evidence against you and calculate what the recommended sentence could be in the event of a conviction. 

Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Excel in Fighting Drug Possession and Possession with the Intent to Deliver Cases

The Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Goldstein Mehta LLC have successfully represented hundreds of clients in drug possession and drug trafficking cases. We are experienced and understanding defense attorneys who will use our high level of skill and expertise on your behalf. We have successfully litigated pre-trial motions and obtained pre-trial dismissals and acquittals at trial. If you are facing drug possession charges, call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session. 

Charged With Drug Possession or Possession with the Intent to Deliver? Get Help Now

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