PA Superior Court: Probation Officer May Search Cell Phone Without Warrant

Probation and Parole Searches of Cell Phones

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Murray, rejecting the defendant’s challenge to his conviction on corpus delicti grounds and holding that a probation officer or parole agent may search a probationer’s cell phone without a search warrant.

Commonwealth v. Murray

In Murray, the defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105. Murray’s Pennsylvania State Parole Agent became suspicious that Murray may have been involved in criminal activity after the Agent visited Murray’s group home for a home visit and Murray was not present. When Murray next reported to the parole office, the agent asked him about his living situation and why he had moved without permission. Murray explained that he had been threatened by a housemate with a gun. Murray told the agent that he wrestled the gun away from the housemate and gave it to another acquittance.

Because Murray admitted to possessing a firearm, the agent took him into custody and proceeded to read the text messages on his cell phone. The agent found two incriminating text messages which had been sent right before Murray reported. One told a friend: “Yo, Kel if you didn’t hear from me by tonight I am locked up. So, my stuff is over 1247 West Huntingdon Street.” The other stated: “And the thing I was telling you about that I took from the bully is in the bathroom right under the tub.”

Of course, parole agents went to search the group home at 1246 West Huntingdon Street and found a gun under the tub in the bathroom. The agents then called the police and gave the gun to the police. The police then charged Murray with possessing a firearm as a felon.

Murray moved to exclude the statements made to the parole agent regarding the gun and also moved to suppress the results of the warrantless search of his cell phone. The trial court denied both motions. Murray was convicted of the gun charge and sentenced to 4.5 – 9 years in prison.

On appeal, Murray raised two main issues. First, he argued that the Commonwealth failed to satisfy the corpus delicti rule because it failed to show that a crime had been committed prior to introducing the statements made by Murray. Second, he argued that the parole agent should have been required to get a warrant before searching his cell phone.

The Corpus Delicti Rule

The Superior Court rejected both arguments. First, the Superior Court rejected the corpus delicti challenge. The corpus delicti rule is a rule of evidence which prohibits the prosecution from introducing an incriminating statement against the defendant unless the prosecution can first show that a crime has occurred. The prosecution does not have to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, but it must show that the evidence is more consistent with a crime than with an accident. The corpus delicti, latin for “body of the crime,” may be proven by circumstantial evidence.

Here, the parole agents found a gun in a group home where Murray and numerous other parolees lived. The gun was hidden inside a plastic bag under a bathtub in the only bathroom in the boarding house. Therefore, the Court concluded that because the gun was hidden in such a way, it was more likely than not that the person to whom the gun belonged possessed it illegally. Accordingly, Murray’s statement about possessing the gun did not violate the corpus delicti rule.

Probation Officers May Search a Cell Phone Without a Warrant

Second, the Superior Court rejected Murray’s challenge to the warrantless search of his cell phone. In many situations, the police may search a person’s belongings when they take that person into custody as part of an arrest. This is known as the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement. For many years, this exception permitted the police to search an arrestee’s cell phone. Recently, in Riley v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that in general, police must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone. The Superior Court, however, distinguished Riley by finding that parolee’s and probationer’s have a reduced expectation of privacy. Riley did not involve the cell phone of a suspect who was on probation or parole. Because probation officers and parole agents may conduct a search of a probationer’s house with reasonable suspicion and without having to obtain a warrant, the Superior Court held that the same rule should apply to a cell phone. Thus, a probation officer or parole agent must only have reasonable suspicion in order to search a cell phone.

The Court concluded that the agent has reasonable suspicion to search the phone because Murray admitted to possessing the firearm and giving it to someone else. The agent had reasonable suspicion that the phone could contain text messages discussing the gun or photos of Murray with the gun. Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the Motion to Suppress.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Gun Charges

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

If you are charged with a VUFA offense, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 

PA Superior Court: Possession of Firearm with Obliterated Serial Number Requires Intentional Modification or Obliteration of Serial Number

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Ford, holding that a defendant may not be found guilty of 18 Pa.C.S. § 6110.2 (Possession of Firearm with Altered Manufacturer’s Number) when the numbers were altered through natural corrosion instead of intentional action. This decision protects individuals who own older firearms which have faded serial numbers. In Philadelphia, firearms offenses are taken very seriously, and prosecutors will often pursue severe sentences for defendants convicted of gun charges. If you are charged with possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number or any offense involving a gun, it is crucial that you contact an attorney who is familiar with the law and is willing to fight for you.   

Commonwealth v. Ford

In Ford, Philadelphia Police Officers received radio calls for a person bleeding and a person with a gun at 2010 Wilmot Street. The officers went to the backyard of that address, but no one was there. As they proceeded through an alleyway onto Ditman Street, the officers were then directed by bystanders to 4663 Ditman Street. While standing on the porch of that address, one of the officers heard screaming coming from inside the house. Based on the screaming, the high crime level in the neighborhood, and the radio call, the officers decided to knock on the door. When no one answered, the police entered the property without a warrant.  

Once inside, the officers saw the defendant put an object which turned out to be a gun on the kitchen chair next to him. Officers promptly arrested the defendant after recovering the .38 caliber silver handgun. When officers looked at the gun, they could not see the manufacturer’s serial number. Because all modern firearms are required by law to have a serial’s number, the officers arrested the defendant and charged him with various Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act, including 18 PA C.S.A. § 6110.2 (possession of a firearm with an obliterated or altered serial number) and 18 PA C.S.A. § 6105 (possession of a firearm by a felon).

The defendant filed a Motion to Suppress, alleging that the gun should be suppressed because the police did not have a warrant when they entered the property. The Commonwealth responded that the officers were acting under the exigent circumstances exception. The exigent circumstances exception permits police to enter a house without a warrant under very limited circumstances – essentially, there must be a bonafide emergency or they must be in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon. After the officers testified to the reasons for entering without a warrant and argument from counsel, the trial court denied the Motion to Suppress. On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed, finding that though the police officers did not obtain a search warrant to enter the defendant’s home, the officers had probable cause and that there were exigent circumstances that warranted police entering his home given the radio call, the screaming, and the high crime nature of the area.

After the Motion to Suppress was denied, the defendant proceeded to trial by way of bench trial. Both the Commonwealth and the defense agreed that the serial number of the firearm had been obscured by corrosion as opposed to having been intentionally obliterated by the defendant. Nonetheless, the trial court found the defendant guilty of both possession of a gun by a felon and possession of a gun with an obliterated serial number, and the court sentenced him to a lengthy state sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing both that the trial court should have granted the Motion to Suppress and that the obliterated firearm statute does not make it illegal to possess a firearm where the serial number naturally wore away over the years and was not intentionally removed.

What is § 6110.2 (possession of a gun with an obliterated serial number)?

§ 6110.2 is one of several statutes that collectively form the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act. In Philadelphia, charges brought under the Act are commonly referred to as VUFA charges, or Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act. § 6110.2 makes it illegal to possess a firearm which has the manufacturer’s number integral to the frame or receiver altered, changed, removed or obliterated.” Further, unlike some of the other VUFA statutes, § 6110.2 does not require that the firearm be operable. Also, it is not a defense to § 6110.2 that the defendant possessed the gun at his or her residence or place of business, making the statute very different from § 6106 (possessing a concealed firearm or a firearm in a car without a license to carry) and § 6108 (possessing a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia). Further, § 6110.2 has recklessness as its mens rea, making it easier for prosecutors to prove as this is a lesser mens rea than other offenses (i.e. specific intent, where a defendant specifically intended to commit a particular crime) and thus easier for the Commonwealth to prove. So, typically, § 6110.2 can be difficult to defend if a defendant is not successful at the suppression hearing.   

The Superior Court Restricts § 6110.2

The issue in Ford was whether possessing a firearm with the serial number that had merely corroded would be sufficient for a conviction under § 6110.2. The Superior Court concluded that it would not. In making its decision, the Superior Court employed statutory interpretation to determine what the General Assembly intended when it passed § 6110.2. As previously stated, it is illegal to possess a firearm when the manufacturer’s number is either altered, changed, removed or obliterated. Throughout Ford, the Superior Court emphasized that it would not “add” to § 6110.2, by quoting Commonwealth v. Johnson, 26 A.3d 1078, 1090 (Pa. 2011) holding that “although one is admonished to listen attentively to what a statute says; one must also listen attentively to what it does not say.”   

The Superior Court began its analysis by consulting the Crimes Code. § 6102 is the definitions section of the VUFA statutes, however “altered,” “changed,” “removed” or “obliterated” are not defined in this section. The Superior Court then turned to Webster’s Dictionary for guidance. They summarized their findings as follows:

[W]e consult[ed] the dictionary, which defines (1) “alter” as “to cause to become different in some particular characteristic (as measure, dimension, course, arrangement, or inclination) without changing it into something else,” (2) “change” as “to make different . . . in some particular but short of conversion into something else . . . [or] to make over to a radically different form, composition, state, or disposition,”; (3) “remove” means “to get rid of as by moving” as in eradicate or eliminate, and is synonymous with erase; and (4) “obliterate” as “1 : to remove from significance and bring to nothingness : as a: to make undecipherable or imperceptible by obscuring, covering, or wearing or chipping away . . . b: to remove utterly from recognition . . . or c (1): to remove from existence : make nonexistent : destroy utterly all traces, indications, significance of . . . (2) to cause to disappear[.]”  

            Based on this analysis, the Superior Court held that natural corrosion did not fall within the definitions of altered, changed, removed, or obliterated. Therefore, the defendant should not have been found guilty of § 6110.2. Because the defendant’s conviction for § 6110.2 ran concurrent to his § 6105 conviction and was identical to it, the Superior Court then vacated the defendant’s sentence for § 6110.2, but did not remand it for resentencing.

VUFA Cases and Weapons Offenses

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are charged with a VUFA offense, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 

PA Superior Court Limits Deadly Weapon Used Sentencing Enhancement in Burglary Cases

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Tavarez. This decision limits the “Deadly Weapon Enhancement” for individuals convicted of burglary when a deadly weapon is involved. It requires that a sentencing court determine whether a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the burglary or whether a defendant merely possessed the deadly weapon at the time the defendant entered the building or occupied structure. 

Commonwealth v. Tavarez

In Tavarez, the defendant pleaded guilty to one count each of aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, impersonating a public servant, and conspiracy. As part of his guilty plea, Mr. Tavarez stipulated to the following factual summary:

[O]n or about November 17th, 2015, shortly after 1:00 in the morning at 49 Mill Road in Oley Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, you along with your accomplices and co-conspirators Edward Martinez, Brandon Smith, and Erick Green went to that residence; the plan even before - you arrived at the residence was to rob the people there; you believed that there were illegal drugs and money[] there to be gained; all four of you agreed to do that. When you got there, as was your intention all along, you and Edward Martinez entered the residence, there were people present. This was a residence. It was not open to the public at that time. You had no license or privilege to be there.

Once inside, you were yelling, [“]Police. Freeze[.”] in [an] attempt to compel the homeowners to do what you wanted them to do, thereby impersonating a public servant. Although you attempted to commit a robbery and you did so with firearms, nothing was actually taken.

When you confronted the homeowner, Eric Wegman, in the upstairs bedroom, he pulled his own handgun and fired, hitting both you and Mr. Martinez. Eric Wegman was also shot in the leg at that point.

Based on these facts, the trial court sentenced Mr. Tavarez to a 10 ½ to 30 years.  The trial court did this, in part, by applying the “Deadly Weapon Used” enhancement to all of the charges, including the burglary charge. After he was sentenced, Mr. Tavarez filed a timely appeal. One of the issues Mr. Tavarez raised on appeal was whether the trial court erred in applying the “Deadly Weapon Used” enhancement to his burglary conviction.  

What are the Sentencing Guidelines?

In Pennsylvania, an individual’s sentence will usually be determined by where the person falls on the sentencing matrix. The purpose of the sentencing matrix is to provide consistency in sentencing across the state. It is important to note that judges are not required to follow the guidelines and are free to depart from them when they see fit. 

The first step in determining where a defendant falls on the sentencing matrix is to figure out what the individual’s Prior Record Score (“PRS”) is. A defendant’s PRS is based on their prior convictions. Specifically, a court will “add” up the prior record score points of each conviction. The more serious the offense, the more “points” it is worth. For example, if an individual’s sole conviction is for an Aggravated Assault where Serious Bodily Injury results, that person will have a PRS of 4. However, if an individual has two prior misdemeanor convictions, that are not specifically delineated by the General Assembly, then that individual will only have a PRS of 1.

The lowest PRS an individual can have is a 0. The highest PRS an individual can have is a 5.  However, some individuals with multiple felony convictions can be classified as a REFEL, while some repeat violent offenders may be classified as a REVOC. These classifications will subject you to more severe guidelines. If you have previous convictions it is imperative that you have an attorney who understands how your PRS is calculated because it can have significant consequences on your sentence.

After the Prior Record Score is determined, the court must then determine the Offense Gravity Score (“OGS”) of the particular offense. The Pennsylvania General Assembly assigned an OGS for each offense listed in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. The range of OGS is from 1-14, with 1 being the least serious, while 14 being the most serious. 

In Tavarez, the defendant had a prior record score of 2. Additionally, the Burglary charge that Mr. Tavarez pleaded guilty to had an OGS of 9.  Thus, if this was the only charge that Mr. Tavarez had pleaded guilty to his guidelines would have been 24-36 plus or minus 12. In Pennsylvania, a judge must sentence an individual to a minimum and maximum sentence. Assuming there were no additional enhancements (i.e. the “Deadly Weapon Enhancement”) and the court had sentenced him to a 2-4 year sentence that would have been a “guideline” sentence. However, because Mr. Tavarez agreed that he used a firearm, the court could, and did, apply the “Deadly Weapon Enhancement” to his case.

What is a Deadly Weapon Enhancement?

If someone commits a crime with a deadly weapon, a court must apply the “Deadly Weapon Enhancement.” This enhancement requires the court to look at additional matrixes to determine a sentence for the defendant. There are two types of deadly weapon enhancement charts: “Possession of a Deadly Weapon” and “Use of a Deadly Weapon.” The “Deadly Weapon Used” matrix will always recommend a more severe sentence than the “Deadly Weapon Possessed” matrix. 

In Mr. Tavarez’s case, using his PRS of 2 and the OGS of 9 of the Burglary offense, the “Deadly Weapon Possessed” matrix had a guideline range of 33-45 plus or minus 12, while the “Deadly Weapon Used” matrix has a guideline range of 42-54 plus or minus 12.  As such, there is a nine-month difference between the two guidelines which is very consequential.

Deadly-Weapon-Possessed.jpg
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The Superior Court holds that only the “Possessed” Matrix applies to Tavarez's Burglary Conviction.

Part of Tavarez's plea deal was to stipulate to a factual summary. After he filed his appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed the transcript and was limited to the facts that were on record. In Mr. Tavarez’s case, the record did not state that Mr. Tavarez used the firearm to commit the burglary. Further, in Pennsylvania, the crime of burglary ends once the felon breaks into the building because burglary is defined as breaking and entering a building or occupied structure with the intent to commit a crime therein. Therefore, the burglary is over once a defendant has entered a building even if the defendant goes on to commit other crimes once inside. Here, Tavarez admitted to using the firearm to rob the complainant after he had entered the residence. Consequently, the trial court was correct in applying the “Deadly Weapon Used” enhancement for the robbery and other offenses that he pleaded guilty to. However, because Mr. Talvarez had already completed the crime of burglary when he entered the complainant’s residence and did not use the firearm in the commission of the burglary, it was incorrect for the trial court to apply the “Deadly Weapon Used” enhancement for the burglary conviction. Because of this error by the trial court, the Superior Court remanded Mr. Talvarez’s case for resentencing.

Call the Award-Winning Criminal Defense Lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC if You Are Charged With a Criminal Offense

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

As shown by Tavarez, the details in a case matter. If you are charged with any offense or under investigation by the authorities, you need a defense attorney who pays attention to the details that will make or break your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 

PA Superior Court: Guilty Plea Invalid Where Defendant Not Warned of Obligation to Pay Restitution

Commonwealth v. Rotola

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Rotola, holding that the trial court may not order restitution at sentencing in a plea bargained case unless the defendant agreed to restitution as part of the plea bargain.

Theft of Property Lost, Mislaid or Delivered by Mistake and Restitution

In Rotola, the defendant pleaded guilty to theft of property lost, mislaid or delivered by mistake as a misdemeanor of the first degree. The court ordered Rotola to serve 9-24 months, less one day, of incarceration and pay restitution in the amount of $25,000, jointly and severally with his co-defendant. Initially, the court found Rotola solely responsible for the theft of $25,000 in jewelry. However, after Rotola filed a post-sentence motion to reconsider, the trial court made Rotola jointly and severally liable with his co-defendant.

Given the extremely high restitution figure, Rotola appealed. On appeal, Rotola argued that the restitution amount was both not supported by the record and not the direct result of his conduct. Rotola pleaded guilty to theft as a misdemeanor of the first degree, and theft as an M1 indicates that the property stolen was worth less than $2,000. Thus, Rotola argued that it was excessive to impose a restitution amount so far exceeding $2,000 when he pleaded guilty to an offense which suggested the restitution should only be $2,000. He also argued that he was not as culpable as his co-defendant who had actually stolen the property as his role in the crime was to sell only a portion of the stolen goods to a pawn shop.

The Pennsylvania Restitution Statute

The statute governing restitution in criminal cases makes restitution mandatory regardless of ability to pay. It provides:

§ 1106. Restitution for injuries to person or property

(a) GENERAL RULE.-- Upon conviction for any crime wherein property has been stolen, converted or otherwise unlawfully obtained, or its value substantially decreased as a direct result of the crime, or wherein the victim suffered personal injury directly resulting from the crime, the offender shall be sentenced to make restitution in addition to the punishment prescribed therefor.

(c) MANDATORY RESTITUTION.--

(1) The court shall order full restitution: (i) Regardless of the current financial resources of the defendant, so as to provide the victim with the fullest compensation for the loss.

(2) At the time of sentencing the court shall specify the amount and method of restitution. In determining the amount and method of restitution, the court:

(i) Shall consider the extent of injury suffered by the victim, the victim’s request for restitution . . . and such other matters as it deems appropriate.

(ii) May order restitution in a lump sum, by monthly installments or according to such other schedule as it deems just.

(4) (i) It shall be the responsibility of the district attorneys of the respective counties to make a recommendation to the court at or prior to the time of sentencing as to the amount of restitution to be ordered. This recommendation shall be based upon information solicited by the district attorney and received from the victim.

(ii) Where the district attorney has solicited information from the victims as provided in subparagraph (i) and has received no response, the district attorney shall, based on other available information, make a recommendation to the court for restitution.

Restitution in Theft Cases

After Rotola appealed, the Superior Court rejected his second argument, finding that because the defendants acted together criminally to cause a single harm to the victim, both defendants were responsible for the full restitution despite Rotola being somewhat less involved.

The Court, however, agreed with the first argument. It found that there was no agreement as to restitution and no suggestion in the record that Rotola would be responsible for restitution. The plea paperwork did not suggest that he would be responsible for restitution, and the oral colloquy conducted by the sentencing judge did not inform Rotola that he would be responsible for restitution. Given the complete absence of any mention of restitution on the record, the Superior Court agreed with Rotola that the guilty plea to theft could not have been knowing, intentional, and voluntary. Therefore, the Court reversed the conviction and ordered that the plea be withdrawn.

Although the restitution statute makes restitution mandatory, a defendant must be advised of the possibility of having to pay restitution in order for a plea to be valid. The Court specifically required that the defendant be warned on the record of the possibility of having to pay restitution, and the Court also required that the sentencing court follow the procedures specified by the statute, meaning a court is required to hold a hearing and determine the amount of restitution at the time of sentencing. Because Rotola was never informed that he would have to pay restitution, his plea was withdrawn and the court remanded the case for trial.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended thousands of clients at the trial level on appeal. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is under investigation or facing criminal charges. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.