PA Superior Court: Police Reasonably Conducted Warrantless Search of Defendant's Home After Defendant Fired Assault Rifle in Back Yard and Acted Crazy

 Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coughlin, holding that police properly conducted a protective, warrantless sweep of Coughlin’s home following corroborated reports that he had fired an assault rifle multiple times in the home. The Superior Court found that the police conduct in this case involved the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless entry into a home.

The Facts of Coughlin 

In August 2015, Philadelphia Police responded to a radio call indicating that multiple gun shots had been fired in the back yard of a residence in a high-crime area. The police peered into the back yard while perched upon a wall and saw a white male, Coughlin, and numerous shell casings on the ground. They did not see a gun, but they secured the defendant and asked him if anyone was inside the house. He gave them inconsistent answers, so they performed a “protective sweep” of the home to make sure that no one had been injured. They found and seized an assault rifle on the second floor.

The police arrested Coughlin, and the District Attorney’s Office charged him with a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA Sec. 6106), possessing instruments of crime, and recklessly endangering another person. The VUFA charge was ultimately dismissed because VUFA 6106 requires either that a gun be concealed or located in a car and that the defendant not have a license. There is an exception to the VUFA 6106 statute which provides that a defendant may conceal a gun in his or her home. Here, the evidence showed that Coughlin lived in the house, so VUFA 6106 was not an appropriate charge. 

Following the dismissal of the VUFA 6106 charge, Coughlin filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the gun, which would help his case with respect to the possessing instruments of crime and recklessly endangering another person charges. The trial court granted the motion to suppress. It concluded that police searched the home solely because they wanted to find the gun; not because they were looking for injured people in the house. The court therefore found that police should have obtained a warrant prior to entering the house.

The Superior Court Appeal

The Commonwealth appealed the suppression of the gun to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court noted that in general, police may not search a house without a warrant. However, there are a number of exceptions to this general requirement. Although the warrantless entry and search of a home is presumptively unreasonable and illegal, there is an exigent circumstances requirement which may justify such a search. Exigent circumstances exist where the police reasonably believe that someone within a residence is in need of immediate aid. There are a number of factors which courts typically look at when determining whether exigent circumstances exist:

  1. The gravity of the offense,

  2. Whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed,

  3. Whether there is above and beyond a clear showing of probable cause,

  4. Whether there is strong reason to believe that the suspect is within the premises being entered,

  5. Whether there is a likelihood that the suspect will escape if not swiftly apprehended

  6. Whether the entry was peaceable, and

  7. The time of the entry (entry at night is disfavored).

These factors apply in the typical case, but in this case, the real inquiry was whether the police reasonably believed someone inside the residence was in need of immediate assistance.

The Emergency Aid Exception and the Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court ultimately concluded that police acted reasonably in entering the house. They did not need ironclad proof of a likely, serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception. Instead, they could err on the side of caution in this case given all of the circumstances. Here, the evidence showed that the defendant fired the gun multiple times in a neighborhood known for gun violence. The initial report suggested that he fired the gun in his back yard, but he also could have fired it in the home. When a witness flagged down the police, she told the police to be careful and described the defendant as acting crazy. Police corroborated the witness statement when they saw spent shells in the defendant’s backyard and by speaking with the defendant, who gave them inconsistent answers about whether anyone was inside. These inconsistent answers in particular suggested that maybe the defendant had a victim in the house who needed help. Therefore, under these circumstances, it was reasonably for police to confirm that he had not injured anyone by searching the house.

Ultimately, this case will likely be the subject of additional appeals as it conflicts with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Wilmer. For now, however, the case illustrates one of the rare circumstances in which police need not obtain a warrant prior to entering a residence. If police reasonably believe that someone inside may be in need of urgent assistance, then they may enter a house without a search warrant.

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

 Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

PA Supreme Court: "I'm done talking" invokes right to remain silent

The Right to Remain Silent

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Lukach, holding that the defendant unambiguously asserted his right to remain silent by telling police that he was done talking and had nothing else to talk about. This decision is significant because it makes it easier for a defendant to invoke the right to remain silent during a police interrogation. Specifically, prosecutors will be less successful when they argue that the defendant was “ambiguous” when asserting their right to remain silent.   

Commonwealth v. Lukach

On August 6, 2015 at approximately 5:00 AM, a Pottsville Police Officer received a call from another officer requesting his presence at the scene of a homicide. Upon arrival, the officer observed blood on the roadway and was informed by other officers that they found the body of the victim lying in the street. During their preliminary investigation, officers became aware that the defendant and a Mr. Thomas had been involved in a prior crime at the victim’s house. They quickly became persons of interest in the homicide investigation. Other Pottsville Officers reported seeing the defendant and Mr. Thomas walking together on the day on which the victim’s body was found, and police later encountered both individuals at 12th Street and Market Street, which is in close proximity to where they found the decedent’s body.

During a discussion with an officer, the defendant stated he was in the area to see what was happening. He further stated that he had been with Mr. Thomas for the entire previous evening and had previously visited an A-Plus store at approximately 5:00 AM. The officers then went to the A-Plus store and determined that the defendant had not been at the A-Plus store at that time. Later that day, an officer went to his house, advised his mother of the homicide, and stated that he wished to speak to the defendant. The defendant was not home, but his mother consented to a search of the property. During the search of the property, officers recovered box cutters and work gloves, both of which were similar to items found at the crime scene.  

The next day, police detained the defendant based on two non-related warrants. After arresting him, they put him in an interrogation room. A detective officer turned on an audio and visual recorder, read the defendant his Miranda rights, and began to interview the defendant regarding the homicide of the victim. Prior to incriminating himself, the defendant told the officer: “Yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The police officer then immediately replied, “You don’t have to say anything, I told you that you could stop.” The officer, however, continued to ask the defendant questions and talk to him. At some point, the officer left the room for approximately eight minutes. Another officer then entered the room, asked for the defendant’s shoes, and the defendant turned them over. The original officer then re-entered the room and discussed with the defendant the types of evidence that could be found on shoes. The defendant continued to deny involvement in the homicide.

Later, the defendant foolishly asked the officer if he could ask him a quick question off camera. After their off-the-record conversation, the officer turned the camera back on, re-advised the defendant of his Miranda rights, and the defendant asked to speak with someone from the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office in regards to whether he could receive a deal in exchange for his cooperation. An Assistant District Attorney arrived shortly thereafter. The defendant was again advised of his Miranda rights and he subsequently confessed to participating in the victim’s murder.

As part of his confession, the defendant told the police that he used one of the victim’s credit cards to access an ATM and then placed it in a storm drain. Officers subsequently recovered the credit card, a pair of sunglasses, a t-shirt and a hat in a storm drain. Based on the confession and the recovery of the credit card, officers were able to retrieve video which showed the defendant accessing an ATM around the time of the homicide. They arrested him and charged him with murder and related criminal charges.

The Motion to Suppress the Statement for a Miranda Violation

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress any statements made to the police after he stated “yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The motion further requested that the defendant’s shoes and any other evidence recovered as a result of those statements, including the items found in the storm drain and the ATM video, also be suppressed because they were all recovered in violation of defendant’s constitutional rights. The trial court agreed with the defense. It found that the confession was coerced because the continuing interrogation was “meant to pressure the defendant into relinquishing his right and the statements he thereafter made were the product of compulsion, subtle or otherwise.”

The Superior Court Appeal

The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal. The Superior Court affirmed the suppression order. The Superior Court found that the officer violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights as he failed to scrupulously honor the defendant’s request to remain silent, and the defendant’s subsequent waiver of his Miranda rights before speaking to the Assistant District Attorney did not cure that violation or render his confession voluntary. The Superior Court also agreed that the physical evidence that was obtained as a result of Appellee’s confession was illegally obtained and affirmed the suppression’s court order. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Court granted allocatur.

When do the Police Have to Give You Your Miranda Warnings?

The police do not always have to provide a suspect or arrestee with Miranda warnings. Instead, police are required to provide Miranda warnings only if they want to use the results of a custodial interrogation in court. Thus, whether Miranda warnings are required depends on two factors – 1) you must be in custody, typically meaning under arrest, and 2) the police must ask questions which are reasonably likely to elicit incriminating statements. If police fail to provide Miranda warnings prior to conducting a custodial interrogation, they usually may not use the statements made during the interrogation in court. Police do not, however, have to provide Miranda warnings if they are not going to question you. Generally, a defendant is in custody for Miranda purposes when the defendant is deprived of his physical freedom in a significant way, or when the defendant reasonably believes that his or her freedom of action is restricted by the interrogation. In addition to providing Miranda warnings, police must also honor a defendant’s invocation of his or her rights. This means that if you ask to speak with a lawyer or tell the police that you wish to remain silent, then they cannot continue to question you without first taking a substantial break. Instead, the interrogation must cease immediately. If the police continue questioning after an invocation of the right to remain silent or consult with an attorney and obtain statements because of this questioning, the trial court should bar the Commonwealth from using the statements at trial because this evidence was illegally obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  

This rule seems simple, but it can become complicated when it is not totally clear whether a defendant actually seek to exercise his or her rights. Various appellate courts have held that the invocation of the right to remain silent or speak with a lawyer must be unambiguous. Obviously, most suspects, when questioned by the police, do not say “I am invoking my Fifth Amendment Rights against self-incrimination.” Rather, they say something that is similar to what the defendant said in his case. As such, suppression courts must then decide whether this was an unambiguous invocation of one’s right to remain silent. If the invocation of the right to remain silent was ambiguous, then the police may continue to question the suspect.    

What is an Unambiguous Invocation of Your Right to Remain Silent?   

Appellate courts have held that when an individual is given his Miranda warnings, all interrogation must cease. The problem, as mentioned above, is that a defendant typically does not speak in legalese and will attempt to invoke their right to remain silent in ways that are not always the most articulate. Over the years, most appellate have acknowledged this problem, so courts do not always require a suspect to explicitly reference the Fifth Amendment or the right to remain silent. However, the courts do require that a defendant’s request be “unambiguous.” Ironically, the decisions on this issue are quite ambiguous. Nonetheless, the courts will employ an objective inquiry into determining whether the defendant’s request to remain silent was “unambiguous.”

One issue that frequently arises, as in the case here, is whether the invocation was prefaced by some qualifying phrase. In Lukach, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed cases from other jurisdictions that addressed this issue. In these jurisdictions, the courts found that when a defendant prefaced his “invocation” by a phrase such as “I don’t know” or “I don’t know [about x crime],” then the defendant was not invoking his right to remain silent. As such, if you are being interrogated for a crime, you should try to be as clear as possible when you invoke your right to remain silent.  

The Defendant’s Invocation Was Unambiguous  

Here, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and affirmed the order granting the suppression of the defendant’s statement. The Court found that the defendant unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights when he stated “I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” Therefore, the Court held that the defendant’s statements were properly suppressed. The Court also affirmed the suppression of the physical evidence, finding that police had coerced the statement. This part of the Court’s decision is a little bit unusual because the law typically does not require suppression of the derivative evidence of a Miranda violation, meaning that if you confess and tell the police where to find other evidence, the confession may be suppressed, but the other evidence usually will not. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently granted an appeal in a different case to evaluate whether the derivative evidence should also be suppressed. It is possible the justices are leaning in favor of changing that rule to require the suppression of the derivative evidence given the decision to suppress the physical evidence in this case

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help.

 Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

Important Changes to PA's Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA")

 Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Pennsylvania Criminal Appeals Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Pennsylvania Criminal Appeals Attorney

Changes to the Post-Conviction Relief Act Which Could Help You

The Pennsylvania Legislature recently enacted a number of important changes to Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The PCRA is a statute which provides some criminal defendants who have been convicted of a crime and who are still serving a sentence of probation or incarceration with a mechanism by which to challenge their convictions even after an unsuccessful direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court or Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The PCRA is a very technical statute, and there are a number of procedural bars which limit the type of relief which could potentially be available to a petitioner. The recent changes in the law attempt to relax some of the more unfair restrictions and allow a small number of additional petitioners to litigate a PCRA on the merits.

On October 27, 2018, Governor Wolf signed Senate Bill 915, now Act 146 of 2018, into law. Act 146 changed the Post-Conviction Relief Act in three important ways which serve to make it more fair:

First, the law extends the deadline for filing a Petition based on newly discovered evidence to one year following the discovery of the evidence. Under the previous statute, petitioners had sixty days from the day on which they uncovered new evidence to file a PCRA challenging a conviction. Many PCRA petitioners are incarcerated in state prisons, and so filing a Petition within sixty days is difficult if not impossible for many petitioners. The new statute provides for one year in which to file a PCRA Petition after discovering new evidence, thereby ensuring that petitioners who uncover evidence after their trial which could have changed the result had it been admitted into evidence at the time will have a more reasonable period in which to file a petition.

Second, the law provides that petitioners who file petitions based on new DNA testing no longer need to be on probation or in prison at the time that the petition is filed and/or decided. Previously, the PCRA required that a petitioner be serving a sentence of probation or incarceration not only when he or she filed the petition but also when the petition was ruled on by the court. This new change eliminates that requirement for petitioners who file a PCRA based on new DNA evidence. Unfortunately, it does not make the same change for petitioners who file a PCRA that is not based on DNA testing.

Third, the changes in the law allow for DNA testing in some cases even where the defendant pleaded guilty at the time of the original criminal trial. Previously, a defendant who pleaded guilty could not later seek DNA testing even if that DNA testing would exonerate them. The new changes in the law eliminate this bar to seeking DNA testing in the hopes of overturning a wrongful conviction. This is a common sense reform which reflects the unfortunate reality that many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the risk of a longer sentence of incarceration.

Although the PCRA still contains a number of procedural bars that prevent innocent defendants and defendants who received ineffective legal assistance from challenging their convictions, these changes in the law eliminate some of the most egregious and unfair problems with the statute.

Background on Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act

Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act allows petitioners to challenge a conviction or seek DNA testing of evidence for a limited number of reasons. Generally, PCRAs take place at the conclusion of a direct appeal if the direct appeal has been unsuccessful. The most common reasons for filing a PCRA include retroactive changes in constitutional law, the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial or in deciding to plead guilty, and the discovery of new evidence which would have changed the outcome at trial or the decision to enter into a plea deal. The PCRA is a complicated statute which still contains a number of procedural bars to successfully litigating a petition, so it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal appeals attorney if you are considering filing a PCRA petition. Importantly, the analysis in this article is general and may not apply in your situation. There are strict deadlines for filing a petition, so it is always important that you speak with an attorney right away.

Facing criminal charges or planning an appeal? We can help.

 Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or have been convicted and would like to appeal, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended thousands of clients in jurisdictions throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won cases at preliminary hearings, in pre-trial motions, at trial, and on appeal. Our experienced and understanding defense attorneys offer a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a defense lawyer today.

PA Supreme Court: Consent to Search Car Does Not Necessarily Include Consent to K9 Search

 Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Valdivia, holding that a motorist’s consent to a police search of his car does not automatically include the consent to detain the motorist for 40 minutes and then conduct a canine search. Instead, the scope of the search by the police should have been limited to that for which a reasonable person expected he or she had provided consent.

The facts of Valdivia

In Valdivia, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers were on patrol in a marked police cruiser on Interstate 80 in Centre county, PA. At some point, they drove behind the defendant, who was driving a white minivan with Michigan plates. After two miles, they saw the van change lanes without using a turn signal. They decided to pull the defendant over. The defendant complied and pulled over to the side of the road.

The troopers both approached the vehicle. One of the troopers asked for the defendant’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. The defendant responded that he was about to run out of gas, but he provided the trooper with his Florida driver’s license and a rental agreement for the van. As troopers so often do, the trooper testified that the defendant seemed nervous and that his hands were shaking when he provided the documentation.

The troopers then began asking the defendant about his travel plans. He explained that he was on his way to New Jersey to visit family and provided an elaborate story about how he ended up renting a minivan instead of flying from Florida. From outside of the van, the trooper was able to see two large boxes wrapped in Christmas paper in the back of the van. The trooper found it odd that the gifts had no markings from an airline and that they were not banged up. He also later testified that drug traffickers often wrap up containers of drugs in Christmas paper during the holidays. The trooper also had concerns about the fact that the van had been rented thirty miles away from the airport for a one-way trip. He then ran the defendant’s record and found that he had priors for possession with the intent to deliver.

The troopers contacted a State Police K9 officer who was not currently on duty and asked him to come to the scene. While they waited for him, they told the defendant to get out of the van. They explained that they were going to provide him with a written warning for failing to use his turn signal when changing lanes. After returning his documentation, the trooper asked the defendant if he would answer a few more questions. The defendant said that he needed to get gas, but he would answer a few more questions. The troopers then continued to grill him about his travel plans and the paperwork for the van. The defendant’s story changed a little bit, the troopers became increasingly suspicious, and they then asked for consent to search the van. The defendant gave verbal consent first and then signed a written consent form, two things which you should virtually never do. The troopers had not told the defendant that a K9 officer was on the way.

Because it was cold, the troopers generously asked the defendant if he would like to wait in the back of the patrol car while they searched the minivan. The troopers then waited for the K9 officer; they did not start searching the minivan in the meantime. When the K9 arrived, the troopers removed the Christmas boxes from the minivan and had the K9 sniff them. The K9 “alerted",” suggesting that they were drugs in one of the boxes. The troopers opened the boxes and found lots of marijuana. They seized the marijuana, a mobile smartphone, and a tablet, and they arrested the defendant. Prosecutors charged him with possession of a controlled substance, possession with the intent to deliver, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Motion to Suppress - Were there limits to the consent to search?

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the marijuana, arguing that although he had consented to a normal search of the minivan, he had not agreed to wait for 40 minutes and then allow a K9 search. The trial court denied the motion. It found that the defendant voluntarily consented to the search and that it was not the product of police coercion. Further, it found that the defendant consented to the K9 search because he had not placed any limits on the scope of the search when he authorized the troopers to search his car. The court reasoned that because he was engaged in the transportation of drugs, he should have realized that troopers may use a dog for the search. The defendant then proceeded by way of bench trial, was found guilty of all charges, and sentenced to 11.5 to 23 months in jail followed by 30 days of probation.

The defendant appealed to the Superior Court. The Superior Court agreed with the trial court and affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Superior Court found it to be a close case, but ultimately ruled against the defendant. The Superior Court concluded that there is nothing about a K9 search which differentiates it from a human search when it comes to the issue of consent to search. The defendant then filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Court accepted the case.

Consent to search does not automatically include consent to a K9 sniff

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the suppression court’s decision. It found that the consent to search provided by the defendant did not automatically include the consent to wait 40 minutes and then be subjected to a K9 sniff. In Pennsylvania, police typically need a search warrant or probable cause in order to search a motor vehicle. However, one exception to the probable cause requirement is that police may conduct a search without any level of reasonable suspicion or probable cause when the defendant agrees to it. Notably, New Jersey has a different rule in which police must have reasonable suspicion in order to request consent to search.

When is consent to search valid?

Although police need not have any level of suspicion in order to legally conduct a consensual search, there are some limitations with which they must comply even during a consent search. For example, they must have obtained the consent voluntarily. If the police obtained the consent by threatening to shoot the defendant, then that would probably not be voluntary consent. Additionally, the search must be limited to the scope provided by the suspect. This means that if the suspect agrees to a search of one room but not another, police cannot search that other room without obtaining a warrant or unless some other exception applies. When there is some ambiguity to the valid scope of the search, the scope is determined by what would be objectively reasonable. This means the court does not look to what the defendant actually intended or what the officer understood, but instead what a reasonable person would have understood by the exchange between the officer and the person.

Given the scope limitations on consent searches, the issue became whether the defendant should have reasonably expected that police would detain him for nearly an hour and then conduct a K9 search. The Supreme Court ultimately found that he should not have reasonably expected such police behavior. Courts have long held that a K9 search is different from a regular search, and the police did not mention to the defendant that they had a K9 on the way or that he would have to wait for such an extended period of time. The defendant gave two human officers permission to search his car. There was no K9 or K9 handler present at the time, and nothing about the interaction suggested that one was on his or her way. Under these circumstances, a reasonable person would not have anticipated a K9 search of the boxes. Accordingly, the troopers exceeded the scope of the defendant’s consent, and the trial court should have granted the Motion to Suppress.

 Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Aggravated Assault, Sexual Assault, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.