PA Supreme Court: Arrest Warrant Does Not Allow Police to Enter Home

 Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Romero. In Romero, the Court held that the police must obtain a search warrant prior to entering a private residence to arrest someone. The police may no longer enter a private home armed only with an arrest warrant. Instead, in order to avoid the risk that police will enter the wrong house, they must also obtain a search warrant from a magistrate after showing the magistrate that they have probable cause to believe the person to be arrested will be found in that location.

The Facts of Romero

In Romero, police were looking for a man named Earnest Moreno who had absconded from a halfway house in Philadelphia. Moreno was on state parole and left the facility. His parole agent obtained a warrant for his arrest and began attempting to locate him. The agent, assisted by Deputy United States Marshalls, attempted to execute the arrest warrant at an address in Philadelphia where they believed that he might live. The residence actually belonged to Moreno’s half-brother, Angel Romero, and his wife, Wendy Castro.

The agents did not find Moreno in the house. Instead, they found a marijuana grow operation. After finding the marijuana, the agent contacted the Philadelphia Police Department. Philadelphia Police obtained a search warrant and searched the house. They recovered marijuana, paraphernalia for growing marijuana, a gun, and identification which linked the defendants to the house.

Motions to Suppress

Romero and Castro moved to suppress all of the contraband found in their house. The trial court held a hearing on the motion, and Romero and the agent testified at the hearing. The agent testified that he had a number of different reasons for believing that he would find Moreno at the house. First, it was the address listed on Moreno’s most recent driver’s license, which had expired years prior. Second, the last time Moreno had been arrested, he gave the police that address. Third, he testified that someone from the halfway house told him that Moreno gave them that address when he entered the facility. Finally, he testified that his investigation revealed that Moreno’s family continued to live at the address in question, but he refused to reveal how he learned that information. He agreed that there were other possible addresses for Moreno, but based on those four factors, he believed the address that he searched to be the most likely location for finding Moreno.

He then described the search. He testified that he knocked on the door, announced his and the other officers’ presence, and then was permitted to enter the residence by someone inside. He could not recall whether the occupants actually said he could enter, but he testified that they did not say no. He did remember that the residents began to object to the search of the home, but the agents and marshals ignored those objections. The officers then found the marijuana grow operation.

Romero testified also. He testified that he had previously lived at the address in question with his wife and two children. He testified that Moreno was his half-brother, but he said that he did not associate with him because Moreno was addicted to heroin. He said that he had not spoken with Moreno in fifteen years, did not know where Moreno lived, did not know that Moreno was on parole, and did not know that Moreno had listed that address on his expired driver’s license. He said that Moreno did not receive mail at that address. He also contradicted the agent’s description of the search. He claimed that he heard a knock, his wife opened the door, and police entered without permission. They then began searching the house without speaking to anyone except to tell Romero to sit down after cursing at him.

The trial court granted the Motion to Suppress. The court found that authorities did not need a search warrant to enter the house. Instead, the trial court concluded that the agent simply had to show that his belief as to why Moreno lived at that location was reasonable. However, the trial court found that the belief was unreasonable. It concluded that the information possessed by the parole agent was simply too old to justify the belief that Moreno would be found at that address. Therefore, the court granted the motion and excluded the evidence of drugs, guns, and paraphernalia that the agents found while searching for Moreno. 

The Criminal Appeal 

The Superior Court reversed and remanded the case for trial. The Superior Court felt that “so long as the authorities had reason to believe that the subject of an arrest warrant . . . lived in and could be found in the apartment, they had a valid basis to search the apartment for the subject of the warrant.” Further, the Superior Court concluded that the agent’s belief was reasonable because Moreno had allegedly given the halfway house that address despite the agent’s refusal to testify from where that information came.

Petition for Allowance of Appeal

The defendants appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court. The Court recognized that under prior United States Supreme Court decisions, police officers may enter the home of the subject of an arrest warrant to effect an arrest, but they must obtain a valid search warrant before entering the home of a third party. Although this standard makes sense in theory, it poses real problems in practice. The problem with this standard is that the police often do not know whether the place that they want to search is the suspect’s home or the home of a third party. In some cases, police may know exactly where the subject of an arrest warrant lives. In others, they may have trouble finding out. Even where police have solid, recent information as to a suspect's whereabouts, the suspect may have recently moved or gone into hiding. That person may also be living with others who have not have done anything wrong and who have their own privacy interests. 

The Court therefore concluded that police must have probable cause to believe that the suspect will be found at the location. The Court then had to decide whether the probable cause requirement means that police must obtain a search warrant prior to entering the house or whether the probable cause could simply be challenged by a defendant after-the-fact if the police guessed wrong. The Court rejected the idea that police officers could determine for themselves whether they have probable cause that a defendant will be found at a particular location. Instead, the Court concluded that police must first obtain a search warrant, based on probable cause, from a magistrate or judge prior to entering a private residence.

This ruling does not prevent the police from arresting someone based on probable cause or an arrest warrant where the police encounter that person in public. They may also obtain consent to enter a private residence. However, in order to enter a residence without consent and search from someone, a police officer must first obtain an arrest warrant and a search warrant from a judge. This means that even where police know where the person lives, they cannot enter the house without a search warrant even if they have already obtained an arrest warrant.

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