PA Superior Court Continues to Undermine US Supreme Court's Birchfield Ruling

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Moser. In Moser, the Superior Court concluded that police lawfully obtained the defendant’s blood sample without a search warrant because the defendant consented to the blood draw before police read him defective and coercive O’Connell warnings. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s order suppressing the results of the blood test. 

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Moser

Moser was charged with Homicide by vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance (Homicide by DUI), three counts of DUI, homicide by vehicle, and related traffic offenses. Moser filed a motion to suppress, arguing that police coerced him into submitting to warrantless blood testing by reading him defective O’Connell warnings which informed him that if he refused the blood testing, he would be subjected to stricter criminal penalties. The United States Supreme Court has previously held in Birchfield v. North Dakota that a state cannot impose criminal penalties on a defendant who refuses to submit to a warrantless blood draw, and Pennsylvania courts have suppressed blood testing in which defendants were told they would face criminal penalties if they refused prior to the testing. 

The trial court granted the motion to suppress. It found that the behavior of the police was unlawfully coercive and violated Moser’s rights because the police told him that he would face criminal penalties if he refused the testing. By granting the motion to suppress, the court ordered that the prosecution could not use the results of the blood testing at the homicide trial. 

The Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that Moser had actually agreed to the blood testing while in the back of the police car on the way to the hospital. The police who were investigating the case did not read him the defective warnings until he arrived at the hospital. Therefore, the prosecution argued that he had already agreed to the blood draw prior to hearing anything coercive. Because the warnings were not provided until later, they could not have coerced him into giving up his right to insist on a search warrant prior to a blood test. 

The Superior Court agreed. It found that although the warnings were improper and could have been coercive, the warnings did not coerce the defendant in this case because they were not given until after he had already consented to the blood draw in the back of the police car. Therefore, the court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the blood test results may be introduced at trial going forward.

This case continues a recent trend in the Sueprior Court of rejecting these Birchfield challenges and allowing the Commonwealth to use evidence even where the police gave improper warnings. A number of Birchfield cases are still on appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has granted review in at least one of them. Therefore, although this is a significant set back for the defendant in this case, it is possible that the rules surrounding blood testing in DUI cases will continue to change and that the Superior Court could be overturned. For the time being, the Superior Court continues to regularly undermine the basic holding of Birchfield that states may not impose criminal penalties on a defendant for refusing blood testing when police have not obtained a search warrant. Obviously, the constitution requires search warrants, but the appellate courts continue to allow police to ignore this requirement and forgives their basic refusal to set up electronic or telephonic warrant application systems for DUI cases. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

 Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or may be under investigation, we can help. We are experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers who will fight for you. We have successfully defended thousands of clients in trial courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as on appeal and in Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today. 

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US Supreme Court: An Unauthorized Rental Car Driver Can Probably Litigate a Motion to Suppress

 Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The United States Supreme Court has decided the case of Byrd v. United States, holding that the defendant probably held a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car he was driving despite the fact that the car had been rented by his girlfriend and she had not listed him as an authorized driver in the rental agreement. 

The Facts of Byrd

Byrd dealt with a traffic stop in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Police pulled over a rental car driven by the defendant. The defendant was the only person in the car. During the course of the traffic stop, the troopers learned that the car was a rental and that the defendant was not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver. The troopers told the defendant that they were going to search the car and that they did not need his permission because he was not an authorized driver. They then searched the car, including the trunk. They found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin. 

When Byrd’s girlfriend rented the car, she signed a rental agreement. The agreement specifically listed the limited number of people people who could drive the car. It also stated:

Permitting an unauthorized driver to operate the vehicle is a violation of the rental agreement. This may result in any and all coverage otherwise provided by the rental agreement being void and my being fully responsible for all loss or damage, including liability to third parties.

Byrd’s girlfriend did not list him as an authorized driver. Therefore, they both violated the rental agreement when he drove the car. Of course, there is a difference between technically violating a rental agreement and stealing a car. 

The Federal Criminal Case Against Byrd  

Due to the significant quantity of drugs recovered by police, federal prosecutors in the Middle District of Pennsylvania assumed the case and prosecuted Mr. Byrd for distribution and possession of heroin with the intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sec. 841(a)(1) as well as possession of body armor by a prohibited person in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 931(a)(1). Byrd moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that police had no basis for searching the car and that because his girlfriend had rented the car and loaned it to him, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car despite the fact that he was not part of the rental agreement. The trial court denied the Motion to Suppress, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Both found that he could not challenge the search because he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the car due to the fact that he was not on the rental agreement. 

The Criminal Appeal

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the issue of whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car even when the driver is not authorized to drive the vehicle by the rental agreement. The Court held that, as a general rule, someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list that person as an authorized driver. The Court therefore remanded the case for the trial court to determine whether Byrd was in fact in otherwise lawful possession and control of the rental car and whether the police had probable cause to search the vehicle. 

The Supreme Court's Analysis

The Court’s analysis focused on whether Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. In order to challenge a potentially unconstitutional search in federal court, the person challenging the search must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that the police searched. For example, a person is going to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own home or the pockets of their pants and therefore would be able to challenge a search of those places. But a person generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a neighbor’s home. This means that if you store your drugs in your neighbor’s house, the police could use those drugs against you even if they found them by searching your neighbor’s house illegally without a search warrant. Thus, the case hinged on whether Byrd had the ability to challenge the search or whether he had no reasonable expectation of privacy because he was not authorized to drive the car. His girlfriend, as the person who rented the car, clearly would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy while driving the car if police sought to introduce evidence of a search against her. 

The Court noted that one who owns and possesses a car, like one who owns and possesses a house, almost always has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it. Ownership of property, however, is not the only factor in determining whether someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Although ownership is not necessarily required, mere presence in the area that was searched also may not be enough to provide a reasonable expectation of privacy. Instead, there typically must be some kind of property right or right to exclude other people from the property. A car thief, for example, would not have any property rights in a car or right to exclude other people from the car. Therefore, a car thief would not be able to challenge the search of the car that he or she stole. 

The Court concluded that there is a difference between violating an important provision in a car rental agreement and potentially increasing one’s exposure to civil liability in the event of an accident and actually stealing a car. A car thief has no reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen car, but someone who is not on the authorized driver’s list does not automatically stand in the same position as a car thief.

Accordingly, the Court remanded the case for further fact-finding by the trial court. The Court ordered the trial court to consider whether Byrd had committed a criminal offense in having his girlfriend rent the car for him knowing that he could not rent it such that he was no better than a car thief. If so, then the trial court could be justified in finding no reasonable expectation of privacy because Byrd would essentially have stolen the car. The Court also permitted the trial court to determine whether State Police had probable cause to search the vehicle. If they did, then the question of whether Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy would be irrelevant because federal law permits police to search a vehicle without a search warrant as long as they have probable cause. 

Byrd was a unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court. It is an important decision because of its common-sense approach. It seems obvious that someone should not lose all of their rights to be free of an illegal search and seizure solely because they have not properly followed the requirements of a car rental agreement. Instead, courts should use common sense and look at whether the person who was subjected to the search would have reasonably expected to have privacy in the vehicle and whether society would view that expectation as reasonable. Here, unless Byrd was the equivalent of a car thief, he should not be subjected to an illegal search by the police regardless of the technicalities of a complicated car rental agreement which contained all sorts of other provisions. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or considering an appeal, we can help. We are experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers who have successfully defended thousands of cases. We have the experience, skill, and knowledge of the law to fight for the best possible outcome for you. We offer a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call or text 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning criminal defense attorney today.  

Can a Juvenile's Confession Be Used Against Them in Court?

PA Superior Court Finds Juvenile's Waiver of Miranda Rights Involuntary

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of In Re: N.B., finding that the trial court properly suppressed N.B.'s confession due to an involuntary waiver of N.B.'s Miranda rights. The Court's ruling relied heavily on the fact that the juvenile defendant's mother essentially forced him to confess to the police, thereby rendering his decision to waive his Miranda rights and confess involuntary. 

In the Interest of N.B.

The facts of In Re: N.B. were relatively straight forward. The defendant’s mother believed that N.B. and his twin brother, D.B., engaged in sexual misconduct involving a 9-year-old girl who lived in a neighboring apartment. On April 29, 2015, the mother confronted both the defendant and his brother about her suspicions. The mother subsequently reported the allegations to the defendant’s school district because she was concerned about his behavior.

A lieutenant with the Bradford Police Department contacted the mother and asked her to bring in the defendant and his brother to the police station for an interview. The mother complied and brought both boys to the police station to be interviewed about the sexual misconduct allegations. The lieutenant then read both the brothers Miranda warnings and explained to the mother that although she could be present for the interviews, he preferred to interview the boys individually and alone. The warnings were read to defendant and his brother “quickly.” The mother agreed to allow the defendant to be interviewed alone. The mother told defendant to “be brave [and] to tell the truth” prior to exiting the room. This interrogation was recorded.

The defendant fully complied with his mother’s instructions and confessed to numerous sex crimes involving the nine-year-old girl and agreed to speak with the lieutenant again if necessary. The defendant’s brother also complied with his mother’s instructions and confessed to numerous sex acts with the same girl. Consequently, on October 16, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a written allegation of delinquency based on the defendant’s confession. On December 1, 2015, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the confession. On February 17, 2016, a the family court held a suppression hearing. The mother, the lieutenant, and the defendant testified at this hearing.

The mother testified that the defendant suffered from developmental delays and had difficulty in school. The mother stated that she repeatedly told the lieutenant that she wanted to get her son the help and treatment that he needed, in addition to the consequences for his actions. She also explained that she did not believe the defendant knew that he could refuse to answer the lieutenant’s questions or leave the police station.

The defendant testified that he was in the seventh grade when this occurred. He stated that although he was older than his classmates, he was “behind” in school. He further testified that he had difficulty learning, paying attention, and understanding his teacher’s instructions. Additionally, he testified that he was failing some classes and that he received mental health treatment in school.

In regards to the legal system, the defendant testified that he did not know anything about it. In regards to Miranda warnings, the defendant did not attach any significance to them other than associating them with a television show. Further, he explained that he did not understand that he could refuse to answer the lieutenant’s questions or leave the police station. The defendant testified that he believed had to comply with his mother’s instructions.

The lieutenant testified at the suppression hearing, too. He testified that he did not yell or threaten the defendant. Further, he stated that he was calm during the questioning and the defendant was not restrained in any way. He also testified that the door to the room was closed, but not locked during questioning.

At the conclusion of the evidence and arguments, the suppression court filed an order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. Specifically, the suppression court found that the defendant had not waived his Miranda rights knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. The suppression court also found the defendant to be credible in his testimony. The Commonwealth appealed. 

Does the Law treat Juveniles Differently from Adults When Considering Whether a Waiver of Miranda was Knowingly, Voluntarily and Intelligently?

The answer is yes. A popular misconception is that if the police do not read you your Miranda warnings, then the case against you should be thrown out. This is not correct. An officer’s failure to read you your Miranda warnings is only relevant when you are 1) in custody for purposes of Miranda and 2) you are asked questions that are reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response. If those two prongs are not satisfied, then you will not be successful in a motion to suppress. If an officer does read you your Miranda rights, you can still be successful in suppressing your statement if you did not provide a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those rights. Therefore, if you are charged with a crime and provided the police with a statement, you need a skilled attorney who is capable of suppressing the statement.  

Juvenile adolescent development has been a hot topic issue in United States Supreme Court jurisprudence. Most of the jurisprudence focused on punishment (i.e. whether a juvenile could get the death penalty or whether a juvenile could serve the rest of his/her life in prison). However, not all cases focused on punishment. For example, in 2011, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. This decision focused on juveniles and Miranda. In this case, the Court held that the age of a child is relevant when determining whether a juvenile is in custody for purposes of Miranda. As such, a child does not necessarily have to be in a police station to be in custody for purposes of Miranda. A teacher’s classroom could satisfy this element based on the facts of the particular case.

What Factors Apply to Whether a Juvenile's Mirandized Statement Will Be Admissible?

In Pennsylvania, courts will look at several factors in determining whether or not a juvenile has waived his Miranda rights. Specifically, the court will look at: the juvenile’s age, experience with the criminal justice system, comprehension, whether an interested adult is present, the duration and means of the interrogation, the defendant’s physical and psychological state, the conditions attendant to the detention, the attitude of the interrogator, and any other factors that could drain a person’s ability to withstand suggestion and coercion. As one can see, this is a very fact intensive inquiry. Courts do not go through the same level of intensiveness when determining whether an adult made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his or her Miranda rights.

PA Superior Court Upholds the Suppression Court’s Order Suppressing Defendant’s Statement Because His Waiver Was Not Knowing, Intelligent and Voluntary.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the Suppression Court’s order suppressing the defendant’s statement. In its opinion, the Superior Court focused on several points. First, and arguably most importantly, the court found that the defendant did not have an interested adult present with him when making his waiver. The Superior Court found that because the defendant’s mother instructed him to “be brave [and] tell the truth” she was not considered an “interested person.” Instead, defendant believed he was forced to be there by his mother and that he had to confess.

Additionally, the Superior Court considered the fact that the defendant was intellectually limited, which supported his position that he did not understand his rights, specifically that he was not allowed to leave. Because the trial court found him to be credible, the Superior Court had to adopt that conclusion as well. The Superior Court therefore found that the defendant has basically been coerced into waiving his rights by the circumstances and the orders from his mother. It held that the defendant did not make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights.

Motions to Suppress Statements

 Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Successfully moving to suppress a statement is a very fact intensive exercise that requires a skilled attorney. If you are charged with a crime and you gave a statement to the police, you need an attorney with the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully litigated countless suppression motions. 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: Trial Court Must Bifurcate Felon in Possession of Firearm Charges from Other Criminal Charges

PA Superior Court: Trial Court Must Bifurcate Felon in Possession of Firearm Charges from Other Criminal Charges

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Brown, holding that when the Commonwealth prosecutes 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 6105 (Persons Not to Possess a Firearms) (hereinafter § 6105), along with other charges, the trial court must sever the § 6105 charge from the other offenses and hear those other offenses first when the defendant’s prior conviction is only relevant for purposes of § 6105.