PA Superior Court: If A Police Officer Says Stop, That’s A Stop

What makes an encounter with the police a stop? 

The past few years have seen a number of questionable appellate opinions in which courts have suggested that a person may not necessarily be stopped for Fourth Amendment purposes even when a police officer orders the person to stop. Today, the Pennsylvania Superior Court clarified the obvious and reiterated what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already found: when a police officer says stop, it’s a stop. In Commonwealth v. Morrison, the Court ordered the suppression of a firearm, finding that a reasonable person would not feel free to leave after being ordered by police to stop.

Commonwealth v. Morrison

In Morrison, the defendant was arrested and charged with various gun charges, including VUFA § 6105 (persons not to possess firearms), VUFA § 6106 (carrying a concealed firearm without a permit), and VUFA § 6108 (carrying a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia). The defendant’s arrest stemmed from an encounter with Philadelphia police officers which took place in January 2015. The defendant moved to suppress the gun, arguing that police did not observe the gun in plain view until he had been stopped and detained without reasonable suspicion. At the suppression hearing, officers testified that they were on patrol in Philadelphia in police uniforms and a marked patrol car. At around 8 pm, they received a radio call from an unknown source which indicated that a nearby store had been robbed at gun point. The radio call described the robbers as two black males wearing black hoodies, blue jeans, and masks.

Five minutes later, the officers saw the defendant and another gentleman walking about five blocks away from where the robbery occurred. Although the defendant was a black male in a black hoodie, the defendant was not wearing the clothing described in the radio call. Instead of wearing blue jeans, he was wearing gray sweatpants. Nonetheless, the officers slowly approached the two men, stopped the police car about five feet away from them, and got out of the car.

After getting out of the car, one of the officers told the men to stop. The man who was walking with the defendant stopped, but the defendant did not. He appeared nervous, turned his back to the police car, and slowly walked away from the officers. The other police officer repeated the command to stop, and the defendant finally stopped. Notably, the defendant never attempted to run. Once he stopped, the officers ordered him to take his hands out of his pockets. The defendant did so, and the officers soon noticed the handle of a black handgun conveniently sticking out of the his pocket. The officers also left the information that the defendant supposedly turned and walked away from them out of the various police reports that they prepared.        

Although the defendant did not match the flash description, the officers left key details out of the police reports, and the information provided by the radio call was entirely anonymous and unconfirmed, the trial court denied the motion to suppress the firearm. The court concluded that the interaction between the officers and the defendant did not rise to the level of a “stop.” Instead, the interaction was only a mere encounter. Further, the trial court concluded that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant because he partially matched the description in the anonymous radio call, appeared nervous, and attempted to walk away.   

Standards for Police Encounters

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed. The court started by noting that there are three types of police encounters. The first of these is a “mere encounter” (or request for information) which need not be supported by any level of suspicion, but carries no official compulsion to stop or respond. The second, an “investigative detention” must be supported by reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of arrest. An investigative detention is considered a stop, and it is commonly referred to as a Terry stop. Finally, an arrest or “custodial detention” must be supported by probable cause.

An investigative detention is less than the equivalent of an arrest, but it occurs when police take action which would make a reasonable person not feel free to leave. Although previous Superior Court opinions have implicitly suggested that an encounter may not be a stop solely because the police say “stop,” the Court in Morrison recognized the obvious: when the police tell someone to stop, no reasonable person in that position would feel as though they were free to leave. Accordingly, the defendant was clearly stopped as soon as uniformed, armed officers exited the vehicle and told the defendant to stop.

Because the defendant was stopped for Fourth Amendment purposes and subjected to an investigative detention, the police were required to have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity. However, the Court found that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion because nervousness and slowly walking away from the police is not indicative of criminal activity. Further, the radio call did not provide the officers with reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant and recover the gun because the radio call was anonymous, unconfirmed, and lacking in detail, and the defendant did not even match the description in the call. The call indicated that the perpetrators of the alleged robbery were wearing jeans, and the defendant was wearing sweatpants. Therefore, the officers had stopped the defendant without reasonable suspicion prior to seeing the gun, making the gun the fruit of the poisonous tree. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the gun be suppressed and excluded from evidence.   

The Consequences Of An Illegal Stop

It goes without saying that courts are reluctant to suppress guns. However, when the police stop or search someone illegally, the Fourth Amendment requires that the evidence be suppressed, meaning that it may not be used at trial. Morrison reaffirms that in order to convict a defendant of possessing contraband like drugs or a gun, the prosecution must be able to show that the evidence was obtained pursuant to a legal search and seizure. Further, Morrison is important because it clarifies that a person is stopped when the police begin issuing commands like “stop” which would make a reasonable person feel that he or she was not free to leave.

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Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended clients against gun charges, drug charges, and other possession of contraband cases in preliminary hearings, pre-trial motions to suppress, and at trial. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session with one of our award-winning defense attorneys. 

PA Supreme Court Sharpens Teeth of Speedy Trial Rule

The Right to a Speedy Trial in Pennsylvania

Today, in the case of Commonwealth v. Mills, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court significantly strengthened the speedy trial protections afforded to a criminal defendant under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Pennsylvania Rules require prosecutors to bring a criminal defendant to trial within 365 days of the filing of the criminal complaint. In theory, if the prosecution fails to bring the defendant to trial within that time period, the entire case should be dismissed. Unfortunately, in 2012, the Rules of Criminal Procedure were amended to exclude significant portions of time from the calculation of when the 365 day period expires. However, the PA Supreme Court has now limited the effect of that amendment. 

Under the 2012 addition to the rules, "periods of delay at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth has failed to exercise due diligence shall be included in the computation of the time within which trial must commence. Any other periods of delay shall be excluded from the computation." In subsequent appellate court opinions interpreting the addition, many courts took the position that any time that was not directly the prosecution's fault would not count for Rule 600 purposes. For example, many judges began to rule that the delays due to scheduling backlogs in the courts could not be held against the Commonwealth. These decisions rendered Rule 600 essentially toothless as courts began to find the Commonwealth responsible only for continuances due to blatant negligence. 

Now, in the case of Commonwealth v. Mills, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dramatically re-interpreted the amendment to Rule 600 such that the ordinary periods of time between court dates should count again. In Mills, the defendant was charged with Attempted Murder and related charges by Complaint on June 6, 2011. The case eventually proceeded to a scheduling conference in September, and it was listed for trial on April 2, 2012. Shortly before the trial date, the Commonwealth requested a continuance because 1) discovery was incomplete, 2) the Commonwealth had decided to seek DNA testing, and 3) the specially assigned prosecutor had scheduled a vacation. The trial court continued the case until September 20, 2012, which was well past the 365 day deadline of Rule 600. 

When the date for trial arrived, the defense filed a written Rule 600 Motion to Dismiss as required by the rule. The defense conceded that certain periods of time which had been attributable to defense continuance requests should not count for Rule 600 purposes, but the parties disagreed as to whether 174 days of time between the filing of the complaint and the status conference in which the prosecution requested the continuance of the trial should count. The trial court found that the time counted and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Superior Court initially reversed the trial court's ruling and re-instated the prosecution, but the defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and dismissed the case. The Court's analysis focused on the meaning of the word "delay" as used in the statute. The Court agreed with the defendant that delay, as used in the rule, does not include the time attributable to the normal progression of a case. Instead, that time may count even if the Commonwealth has been diligent, and judges must use their discretion in distinguishing between delay attributable to the court and delay which should be allocated to a party.

Under the ruling, trial courts may still exclude certain periods of time which are solely due to the court's scheduling issues. Thus, where the prosecution is ready for trial but must wait due to a court calendar, the time may be considered "delay" for which the Commonwealth is not accountable. However, the Commonwealth could not argue in this case that it had been prepared for trial at the first listing. The Commonwealth was forced to concede that it requested a continuance due to missing discovery, the failure to obtain prompt DNA testing, and vacation schedules. Therefore, the previous time could not be considered delay attributable to the court, and the case must be dismissed.   

After decades of opinions weakening the protections of Rule 600, Mills shows a willingness on the Court's behalf to finally enforce the rule. Under Mills, the time leading up to trial may now count against the Commonwealth where the Commonwealth is not ready for trial at the first listing. Accordingly, the Court has added some real teeth to the rule, and it has done so even in this case where the charges were as serious as Attempted Murder. As a general rule, endless delay before trial can harm both the prosecution and the defense. The Commonwealth's case may fall apart as witnesses' memories become fuzzy, police officers retire, and evidence is lost, and defendants may spend significant periods of time in jail awaiting trial despite being presumed innocent. Defendants may also run into the same problems with defense witnesses, particularly in cases involving an alibi defense. Given the Court's opinion, Rule 600 should now provide the prosecution and the trial courts with a real incentive to bring a criminal defendant to trial within the one year requirement of the rule.

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Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Rule 600 Motions

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully represented thousands of clients. We have won serious cases on pre-trial motions such as Rule 600 Motions to Dismiss and have also obtained full acquittals at trial. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to anyone who may be under investigation or facing charges. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our defense attorneys.  

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600

Rule 600. Prompt Trial.

 (A)  COMMENCEMENT OF TRIAL; TIME FOR TRIAL

   (1)  For the purpose of this rule, trial shall be deemed to commence on the date the trial judge calls the case to trial, or the defendant tenders a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

   (2)  Trial shall commence within the following time periods.

     (a)   Trial in a court case in which a written complaint is filed against the defendant shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the complaint is filed.

     (b)   Trial in a court case that is transferred from the juvenile court to the trial or criminal division shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the transfer order is filed.

     (c)   When a trial court has ordered that a defendant’s participation in the ARD program be terminated pursuant to Rule 318, trial shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the termination order is filed.

     (d)   When a trial court has granted a new trial and no appeal has been perfected, the new trial shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the trial court’s order is filed.

     (e)   When an appellate court has remanded a case to the trial court, the new trial shall commence within 365 days from the date of the written notice from the appellate court to the parties that the record was remanded.

 (B)  PRETRIAL INCARCERATION

 Except in cases in which the defendant is not entitled to release on bail as provided by law, no defendant shall be held in pretrial incarceration in excess of

   (1)  180 days from the date on which the complaint is filed; or

   (2)  180 days from the date on which the order is filed transferring a court case from the juvenile court to the trial or criminal division; or

   (3)  180 days from the date on which the order is filed terminating a defendant’s participation in the ARD program pursuant to Rule 318; or

   (4)  120 days from the date on which the order of the trial court is filed granting a new trial when no appeal has been perfected; or

   (5)  120 days from the date of the written notice from the appellate court to the parties that the record was remanded.

 (C)  COMPUTATION OF TIME

   (1)  For purposes of paragraph (A), periods of delay at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth has failed to exercise due diligence shall be included in the computation of the time within which trial must commence. Any other periods of delay shall be excluded from the computation.

   (2)  For purposes of paragraph (B), only periods of delay caused by the defendant shall be excluded from the computation of the length of time of any pretrial incarceration. Any other periods of delay shall be included in the computation.

   (3)(a) When a judge or issuing authority grants or denies a continuance:

     (i)   the issuing authority shall record the identity of the party requesting the continuance and the reasons for granting or denying the continuance; and

     (ii)   the judge shall record the identity of the party requesting the continuance and the reasons for granting or denying the continuance. The judge also shall record to which party the period of delay caused by the continuance shall be attributed, and whether the time will be included in or excluded from the computation of the time within which trial must commence in accordance with this rule.

     (b)   The determination of the judge or issuing authority is subject to review as provided in paragraph (D)(3).

 (D)  REMEDIES

   (1)  When a defendant has not been brought to trial within the time periods set forth in paragraph (A), at any time before trial, the defendant’s attorney, or the defendant if unrepresented, may file a written motion requesting that the charges be dismissed with prejudice on the ground that this rule has been violated. A copy of the motion shall be served on the attorney for the Commonwealth concurrently with filing. The judge shall conduct a hearing on the motion.

   (2)  Except in cases in which the defendant is not entitled to release on bail as provided by law, when a defendant is held in pretrial incarceration beyond the time set forth in paragraph (B), at any time before trial, the defendant’s attorney, or the defendant if unrepresented, may file a written motion requesting that the defendant be released immediately on nominal bail subject to any nonmonetary conditions of bail imposed by the court as permitted by law. A copy of the motion shall be served on the attorney for the Commonwealth concurrently with filing. The judge shall conduct a hearing on the motion.

   (3)  Any requests for review of the determination in paragraph (C)(3) shall be raised in a motion or answer filed pursuant to paragraph (D)(1) or paragraph (D)(2).

 (E)  Nothing in this rule shall be construed to modify any time limit contained in any statute of limitations.

Recent Case Results - Successful Outcomes in Robbery, Burglary, Probation, Possession, and Sex Crimes Cases

Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have continued to obtain successful results on behalf of our clients in cases involving sex crimes, robbery, burglary, and Possession with the Intent to Deliver. These successful outcomes have included bail reductions, the dismissal of all charges, favorable results in pre-trial Motions to Suppress, and probationary and house arrest sentences. In the past two months alone, we have achieved a number of wins, including:

Commonwealth v. S.A. - S.A. was charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, and related charges. The magistrate initially set bail at an extremely high amount due to the seriousness of the charges, and SA was unable to make bail. Within 24 hours of being retained, Attorney Goldstein obtained a significant bail reduction, and the defendant was able to make bail. After the defendant made bail, Attorney Goldstein was also able to have all charges dismissed at the preliminary hearing.

Commonwealth v. H.S. - Our criminal defense lawyers were able to obtain a full dismissal of all charges in a burglary case against HS at the preliminary hearing.

Commonwealth v. S.V. - Our attorneys were able to obtain a sentence of house arrest and drug treatment for a defendant who was convicted of drug charges. After the defendant was convicted of Possession with the Intent to Deliver, our defense attorneys arranged for the defendant's other open matters, including a case for which the defendant was on probation, to be brought in before the sentencing judge so that the defendant could be sentenced on all of the cases at the same time and only have one back judge. This procedure is called a 701 consolidation, and it can be very helpful in terms of avoiding multiple probation judges and consecutive sentences for a defendant who has violated probation.

Although the sentencing guidelines called for a state prison sentence and the defendant had been on probation at the time of the new arrest, our defense attorneys were able to convince the sentencing judge to give the defendant a chance to serve a house arrest sentence and obtain drug treatment. By investigating the client's background, our lawyers learned that despite being on probation for a similar offense, the defendant had never been ordered to undergo any kind of addiction treatment. Now, instead of serving time in state prison, the client will have the chance to receive treatment in the community, and the Court will also assist the client with obtaining educational and job training.

Commonwealth v S.A. - Attorney Goldstein obtained a full dismissal of all charges in a Robbery case at the preliminary hearing. In this case, the complainant alleged that the defendant had been part of a group that assaulted him and stole his tablet. After the complainant testified that he had been under the influence of prescription medication at the time of the incident and was no longer sure if the defendant had been present, Attorney Goldstein was able to convince the preliminary hearing judge to dismiss all charges. Prior to the preliminary hearing, Attorney Goldstein obtained a significant bail reduction which allowed the client to fight the case from out of custody.

Cmmonwealth v. D.S. - Our attorneys successfully moved for a bail reduction in a felony gun possession case. After the judge at the preliminary hearing refused to reduce bail, Attorney Goldstein immediately moved for a bail reduction in the Court of Common Pleas, and the Common Pleas judge reduced bail from $35,000 to $15,000.

In Re: J.W.: We negotiated an admission to Criminal Trespass in a juvenile delinquency case where the client was originally charged with felony burglary for breaking and entering into a school after hours. After hearing the defense's mitigation evidence and recommendation at disposition (sentencing), the Family Court judge found that the client was not in need of supervision and dismissed all of the charges. The defendant will not even have to be on probation, and the entire record of the case can be expunged.

Commonwealth v. E.G. - All charges dismissed prior to trial in domestic violence case involving Simple Assault and Recklessly Endangering Another Person charges.

Commonwealth v. M.M. - Client was arrested on a potential technical probation violation. Attorney Goldstein filed a motion to lift the detainer and had a hearing scheduled within a week. At the hearing, our defense attorneys convinced the judge to find that the client had not violated the terms of his probation. The client was immediately released the same day.

Commonwealth v. W.L. - The defendant was arrested on a bench warrant due to a failure to show up for court for a preliminary hearing. Our attorneys were able to have the bench warrant lifted without a finding of contempt of court and obtain Sign on Bond bail, meaning the defendant was released without an increase in bail.

Commonwealth v B.M. - We were able to successfully have Possession with the Intent to Deliver PCP and Conspiracy charges dismissed, leaving only charges related to marijuana sales for trial.

Commonwealth v. J.W. - Our defense attorneys obtained the dismissal of charges of selling crack cocaine and conspiracy at a preliminary hearing. The defendant will now face much less serious charges related only to marijuana in a trial in the Municipal Court. A conviction for Possession with the Intent to Deliver of crack cocaine may often involve jail time, whereas even a conviction for PWID of marijuana in the Municipal Court is more likely to result in probation.

Commonwealth v. M.G. - Successfully negotiated Section 17 disposition on drug possession charges. The Section 17 program requires the defendant to plead no contest and be placed on a period of probation. If the defendant successfully completes the probation, then the charges will be dismissed and can be expunged.

Commonwealth v. A.C. - Successfully negotiated for client who was facing assault charges to obtain entry into a Domestic Violence diversion program. If the client pays a small fine, completes a number of counseling sessions, and stays out of trouble for approximately four months, the entire case will be dismissed and can be expunged. Pursuant to the terms of the program, the client was not required to enter into any kind of plea or admission of guilt.

Commonwealth v. J.H. - Successfully negotiated for client's entry into drug treatment court for client facing two cases of Possession with the Intent to Deliver. If client completes the program, the charges will be dismissed and can be expunged, and client will not have a felony record.

Police Need A Warrant To Search Your Hotel Room (If You Prove It Was Your Room)

Police Searches of Hotel Rooms and Other Rented Spaces

Under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, law enforcement officers need a search warrant anytime they want to search a suspect's private residence with few exceptions. If the police do not obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search of a home, then the owner of the home and any guests who are staying there could potentially have any incriminating evidence which was found in the search suppressed and excluded from trial. This same basic rule requiring police to get a search warrant also applies when police want to search a hotel room. If you are a guest in a hotel, the police cannot search your room without a search warrant. Unfortunately for the defendant in Commonwealth v. Williams, the Superior Court held that the defendant has the burden at the Motion to Suppress hearing of showing that the defendant actually rented or was staying in the hotel room.  

Commonwealth v. Williams

In Williams, the defendant was charged with three counts of Possession with the Intent to Deliver, possession of drug paraphernalia, and two counts of possession of a controlled substance. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence because police searched the hotel room in which the drugs were recovered without a search warrant. At the motions hearing, the prosecution established that police officers in Erie, Pennsylvania responded to a 911 call for a shooting on March 18, 2016 at the defendant's home. Once there, police found a dead pit bull, lots of blood, and a man who had been shot in the leg and face. Police did not find any other victims or the shooter, so they began interviewing the neighbors. One neighbor informed police that the defendant lived in the first floor apartment at that location, and he had seen one of the defendant's vehicles leaving the area around the time of the shooting. The officer looked in the window of the apartment and did not see anyone home, so he radioed for the car to be stopped. 

Other officers stopped the defendant in the car which the neighbor had seen. Once stopped, the defendant told police that he had been staying in a nearby a hotel with a friend because of ongoing domestic issues with his girlfriend. He showed the officer a key card for a hotel room, and he told the officer that the key was for room 111. He also told the officer that he was in room 111 at the time of the shooting.

Following this conversation, officers removed the defendant from the vehicle and frisked him. They also frisked the passenger and recovered a gun. At some point, after the conversation had occurred, officers also searched the car for weapons, and during this search, they found that the defendant had taken the hotel key card from his wallet and discarded it in the vehicle. Williams had apparently dropped the card between the driver's side seat and the center console of the vehicle, so the police took it. 

Based on this information, an officer went to room 111 and knocked on the door. When no one answered, the officer went to the front desk and spoke with hotel management. Management informed the officer that the key card was not for room 111 and that the card was actually for room 231. However, the employee did not know who had actually rented room 231. Further, the employee stated that the hotel did not have surveillance footage which would show who had rented the room. 

Apparently concerned that another shooting victim might be in room 231, the officer went and knocked on the door for that room. When no one answered, the officer decided that it was an emergency. Instead of waiting for a search warrant, he used the key card and opened the door. The officer immediately smelled marijuana and found drugs and drug paraphernalia in the room. He did a quick check of the room for shooting victims, and then he obtained a search warrant to recover the drugs and paraphernalia. 

For reasons which are not explained in the Court's opinion, the defense did not challenge the stop and search of the defendant's vehicle or subsequent seizure of the room key. Instead, the defense argued that the drugs in the hotel room should be suppressed because the police were required to obtain a search warrant prior to entering the room. The Commonwealth responded with two arguments. First, the Commonwealth aruged that the defendant failed to establish that Williams had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hotel room because there was insufficient evidence to show that he had rented or was staying in the room. Second, the Commonwealth argued that the exigent circumstances surrounding the shooting justified the police decision to enter the room without a search warrant because there could have been another victim who needed medical assistance in the hotel room.  

The Exigent Circumstances Exception to the Warrant Requirement

The exigent circumstances doctrine permits law enforcement to enter a house without a warrant during a true emergency. If police reasonably believe that someone is dying inside a home, then the police do not have to wait for a search warrant before entering the home and rendering aid. Of course, if they find something incriminating in plain view during their attempts to render aid, then that evidence wil be admissible at trial. This issue often comes up in cases involving burglary alarms. If a burglary alarm goes off and police do not find anyone at the scene when they arrive to investigate, they may decide to enter the home without a warrant and check for burglars. If they find your drugs and guns inside the house while looking for burglars, it will often be difficult to have that evidence suppressed despite the absence of a search warrant. 

The trial court agreed with the defense and granted the Motion to Suppress. The trial court found that police were required to obtain a search warrant prior to entering the hotel room because a guest in a hotel room has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. Further, the court found that the exigent circusmtances exception to the warrant requirement did not apply as police had no real basis for believing another shooting victim to be in the room. Therefore, the court found that even though the drugs were in plain view once police entered the room, the drugs should be suppressed because police only saw the drugs because they illegally entered the room without a search warrant. 

The Superior Court disagreed and reversed the Order granting the Motion to Suppress. The Court found that the defendant failed to establish that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hotel room. The defendant presented no witnesses, so the Commonwealth's evidence was essentially uncontradicted. Under Pennsylvania law, a defendant who is charged with a possessory offense like Possession of a Controlled Substance has automatic standing; this means that the defendant may always move for the suppression of the items sized. However, in addition to having standing, a defendant who moves to suppress evidence must also have had a reasonable expectation of privacy which was violated by some sort of law enforcement action. If the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched, then it does not matter if the police followed the rules. For example, if the police illegally search your house and find evidence which they wish to use against me, then I would not be able to successfully have the evidence suppressed because I did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your house. If they wanted to use the evidence against you, you would be able to win a Motion to Suppress because it was your house, but I would be out of luck. 

What is a reasonable expectation of privacy? 

The Court noted that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists when an individual exhibits an actual or subjective expectation of privacy and that expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. Courts must evaluate the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether a defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the test does not depend solely on the subjective intent or belief of the defendant. Further, prior case law established that although it is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that evidence was obtained legally at a Motion to Suppress hearing, the burden remains on the defendant to show a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Pennsylvania law is very clear that a hotel room deserves just as much protection as a private home or office. A registered hotel guest enjoys a legitimate expectation of privacy in a hotel room during the period of time in which the room rental remains valid. However, the expectation ceases to be reasonable after the rental period has ended and/or the guest's right to occupancy has lapsed. A person also does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a room in which they are not staying.

Here, the defendant would have been in much better shape for the Motion to Suppress had he testified that he rented that particular hotel room and believed it to be private. However, he did not do so. Instead, he told police that he was staying in a different hotel room, and he actually tried to discard the key to the room. Further, when police spoke with hotel employees, they were told that the hotel did not know who had rented the room and also did not have any video surveillance which would show defendant staying in that room. Accordingly, the only evidence in the record was that defendant had a key to a room in which he did not admit to staying. Therefore, the Superior Court found that the defendant failed to establish that it was his room and correspondingly that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. Police were not required to obtain a warrant prior to the search, so the Court did not even reach the issue of whether emergency circumstances justified the warrantless search. 

The Williams opinion, although intellectually dishonest, illustrates the dangers of relying on the Commonwealth's evidence to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy and constitutional violation on the part of law enforcement. It also shows how unforgiving Pennsylvania's reasonable expectation of privacy doctrine can be compared to New Jersey's much more relaxed standard. Of course, it is obvious from the record that the room had been rented by Williams. A court could have easily inferred, as the trial court did, that it was his room. He had the key, he lied about which room he had rented because he knew there were lots of drugs in it, and the police only searched it because they believed it was connected to him. Indeed, if the prosecution did not believe that it was his room, then they would not have charged him with Possession. It is a certainty that the prosecution will not be withdrawing the charges despite arguing that it was not Williams' room on appeal. 

The Pros and Cons of Testifying as a Defendant in a Criminal Case

Nonetheless, once Williams claimed to have been staying in a different room, he probably needed to testify at the Motion to Suppress hearing in order to establish that it was his room. If he had testified  that it was his room, then the Court would not have been able to find that he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy therein. There is often a great deal of reluctance to call criminal defendants to testify for fear that they will say something incriminating or open the door to some other type of incriminating evidence which would have been otherwise inadmissible. Additionally, if the defendant has prior convictions for certain crimes of dishonesty (burglary, robbery, theft, etc.), then the fact of those convictions may become admissible when the defendant testifies. However, in some cases, it is simply necessary. Here, Williams likely should have testified that it was his room. This is particularly true because the defendant's testimony during a Motion to Suppress hearing may not be used against the defendant at trial even if the Motion is denied unless the defendant testifies to something inconsistent at trial. Therefore, Williams had little to lose by conclusively establishing that it was his room.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak T. Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak T. Goldstein

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

As always, if you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers have won motions to suppress drugs, guns, and other contraband in cases involving car searches, house searches, and searches of hotel rooms. We can help at both the trial and appellate level. Call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session.