PA Supreme Court Finds Car Passenger Entitled to Suppression of Contraband in Illegally Stopped Car

Commonwealth v. Shabezz

In the case of Commonwealth v. Shabezz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has affirmed on appeal that a passenger in a vehicle may successfully move to suppress evidence which is recovered from the vehicle where the vehicle was illegally stopped. The passenger may move for suppression even if the passenger did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the vehicle.

This means that if you are the passenger in a car you do not own and the police stop and search the car and find something illegal, you may move to suppress the contraband due to the initial illegal stop. Previously, it was unclear whether a passenger had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of someone else’s car, and trial judges would frequently use that line of argument in order to deny motions to suppress. 

Motions to Suppress

The first line of defense to gun charges and in drug cases is often the motion to suppress. In cases where the prosecution cannot show that the police legally recovered the evidence in question, it may be possible to have the evidence excluded at trial and the case dismissed by litigating a motion to suppress. In Pennsylvania, it is typically not enough for the defendant to show only that some sort of illegal search occurred. The defendant must also show both that he or she has standing to challenge the search and that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that was searched. 

What is a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Standing is generally not an issue because Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that any defendant charged with a possessory offense has automatic standing to challenge the search and seizure that led to the recovery of the evidence. Reasonable expectation of privacy, however, is frequently an important issue. The defendant must show that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. If the defendant cannot show that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy which the police violated, then the court will deny the motion to suppress even if the police did something illegal. The prosecution bears the burden of showing that the police obtained the evidence in a lawful manner, but the defendant bears the burden of first showing that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.  

In many cases, reasonable expectation of privacy is relatively easy to understand. If you have drugs in your pocket, reasonable expectation of privacy is not going to be an issue because everyone will agree that you had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of your pocket. In other cases, it is clear that you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the police search your friend’s house when you are not in it and recover evidence which connects you to a crime, you will not be able to have that evidence suppressed even if police did not first obtain a search warrant. You simply do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in someone else’s house where you are not present or staying. Therefore, although the police may have violated your friend's constitutional rights, they have not violated yours rights, and you have no remedy.  

Appellate courts have recognized that the basis test for reasonable expectation of privacy is as follows:

An expectation of privacy will be found to exist when the individual exhibits an actual or subjective expectation of privacy and that expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. In determining whether a person’s expectation of privacy is legitimate or reasonable, the totality of the circumstances must be considered and the determination will ultimately rest upon a balancing of the societal interests involved. The constitutional legitimacy of an expectation of privacy is not dependent on the subjective intent of the individual asserting the right but on whether the expectation is reasonable in light of all the surrounding circumstances.

Thus, a defendant generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in houses or cars belonging to other people or in public places. At the same time, a defendant may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in certain places at work or in a restroom. 

In Commonwealth v. Shabezz, the Supreme Court held that a defendant-passenger need not show a reasonable expectation of privacy in a car which has been stopped illegally in order to have drugs or guns suppressed. In Shabezz, officers testified at a motion to suppress hearing that they observed what they believed to be a drug transaction and therefore stopped the car in which Shabezz was a passenger. Shabezz ran, and the police quickly caught him. They found marijuana and cash on him. They then searched the car from which he fled and found more marijuana, scales, packaging, some pills, and a gun. Prosecutors charged Shabezz with Possession with the Intent to Deliver.

The trial court, however, did not believe the police as to the reasons why they stopped the car. Although police testified to observing a drug transaction prior to stopping the car, they had completely failed to mention the drug transaction in any of the police reports which they prepared at the time of the arrest. They also testified that they were able to see the exchange of money for small objects from 45 feet away at night without binoculars. Therefore, the court granted the motion to suppress, finding that the initial stop of the vehicle was illegal. 

The prosecution appealed, and the appeal eventually reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the motion should have been denied because Shabezz was merely a passenger in a vehicle, and as a passenger, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. 

What Happens if the Police Illegally Stop a Car?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected that argument. It noted that there is a difference between standing and reasonable expectation of privacy. In order to prevail in a motion to suppress, the defendant must typically be able to show both. As explained, standing is easy – if you are charged with a possessory offense, you have standing. But reasonable expectation of privacy is often more complicated. In this situation, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that no reasonable expectation of privacy was required. The defendant must simply show that he was a passenger in the car and that the car was stopped illegally prior to the police finding the evidence which the prosecution wants to use. Here, the Court found that the initial police illegality of unlawfully stopping the vehicle tainted all of the subsequently recovered evidence. That evidence became fruit of the poisonous tree, and therefore, the trial court properly granted the motion to suppress.

The Court's opinion simplifies the remedy for challenging an illegal car stop. If the police stop a car illegally and find contraband, it does not matter if the defendant is the driver or the passenger. Both the driver and the passenger have had their rights violated by being seized without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Therefore, both the driver and the passenger now have the same remedy.

Charged with a crime? We Can Help 

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If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers can help. We have successfully litigated countless motions to suppress in gun and drug cases, and we have helped clients favorably resolve all types of criminal charges. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is facing criminal charges or who may be under investigation. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today.