Motions to Suppress

PA Superior Court: Odor of Marijuana in Car Does Not Automatically Justify Search of Trunk

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Can the police search the trunk if they smell marijuana coming from a car?

Maybe not. Just recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Scott. The court held that Philadelphia Police Officers did not have probable cause to search the car’s trunk despite the fact that the car smelled like marijuana, police could see marijuana smoke come from the car when they opened the door, and they found a still-burning marijuana blunt in the car. Because the police had found the obvious source of the odor, they did not have probable cause to believe that they would find additional contraband in the trunk. This is an important opinion which provides at least some limitation on the automobile exception, which is the rule that allows police to search a car without a search warrant so long as they have probable cause to do so.

Commonwealth v. Scott 

On February 1, 2017, at approximately 10:00 PM Officers Tamamoto and Kerr of the Philadelphia Police were traveling in a marked police car in the vicinity of 5800 North 16th Street in Philadelphia. Per Officer Kerr, this is a high crime area where numerous shootings and robberies have occurred. 

On this night, the officers noticed a 2000 Nissan Altima traveling north on North 16th Street with a malfunctioning center brake light. The officers initiated a traffic stop of the car. When the officers stopped the car, the defendant was the only person in it. According to the police, there was a strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. The officers also stated that there was still marijuana smoke coming from the vehicle. After he was stopped, the defendant allegedly attempted to place a blunt in the center console. The officers claimed to have seen this and ordered the defendant to exit the vehicle. They then performed a Terry frisk of the defendant, but they did not find anything illegal on him. They then put the defendant in the back of their police car without handcuffing him.

The officers then searched the passenger compartment of the defendant’s car. They did not ask for his permission to search the car. In the center console, the officers recovered the blunt that they allegedly saw the defendant place there. In the driver’s side door, the officers found a jar with an orange lid that contained marijuana. The officers also found a black ski mask in the back seat of the car. After searching the passenger compartment, the officers then searched the trunk of the car. Upon searching the trunk, the officers found a loaded .38 caliber revolver wrapped up in clothes. At no point during their investigation did the officers request a drug-sniffing dog to search the defendant’s vehicle. 

The defendant was subsequently arrested. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm on the public streets in Philadelphia, possession of a small amount of marijuana, and DUI. The defendant then litigated a motion to suppress the firearm recovered from the trunk of his vehicle. The defendant argued that the officers conducted an illegal, warrantless search of the trunk. The defendant did not contest the recovery of the marijuana. 

The trial court granted the motion to suppress. The court determined that the police “failed to articulate any facts that could have given them probable cause to use the key to open the trunk, search the trunk, and then the clothing which contained the firearm at issue in this case.” Thus, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion.

The Commonwealth appealed. The trial court filed a responsive opinion that stated that there was “no credible testimony or other evidence to suggest that it was reasonable for the officers to continue searching the vehicle for drugs after they recovered both the blunt and the jar of marijuana” from the vehicle. The Commonwealth argued on appeal that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement allowed the officers to search the defendant’s entire vehicle and thus the trial court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss was incorrect. 

What is the Automobile Exception to the Warrant Requirement? 

Both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the government from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures in areas where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the police wish to search a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, then the police must obtain a warrant. However, in Commonwealth v. Gary, a plurality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement. This exception provides that the police do not need a search warrant to search a defendant’s automobile. Courts have approved of this exception because of the inherent mobility of automobiles and on the basis that individuals have a reduced expectation of privacy in automobiles. Therefore, if the police find contraband or have probable cause to believe that contraband is in the vehicle, then they may search any part of the vehicle that may contain that contraband. 

The problem this poses for defendants is that it is really easy for the police to claim that they smelled marijuana coming from a person or a car, and that accusation is difficult to rebut. Thus, police can stop a car, claim they smelled marijuana, and then typically justify a search of the entire car. Even if they do not find marijuana during the ensuing search, courts will often approve of the search anyway, finding that the odor must have come from smoking in the car at some earlier point in time.

The Superior Court’s Decision 

The three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision in granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. The majority opinion gave great weight to the trial court’s analysis of the officer’s testimony. Specifically, the majority focused on how the officer described that the blunt “was just smoked.” Additionally, per the majority opinion, the record did not provide any other facts that could have supported a belief that additional contraband was located in the trunk. There was no testimony that the driver could access the trunk from the passenger compartment of the vehicle. The officer also did not indicate that he had received any sort of special training to support his belief that additional contraband was located in the trunk. Finally, and most importantly, the majority opinion found that the odor of burnt marijuana and the small amount of contraband recovered from the defendant’s vehicle “did not create a fair probability that the officer could recover additional contraband in the trunk.” Therefore, the trial court’s ruling will stand. It is likely that the Commonwealth will appeal this decision.

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help. 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or may be under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals, dismissals, and other favorable outcomes in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Theft, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Superior Court: Police Justified in Stopping Car That Left Travel Lane Four Times

Zak Goldstein Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cephus. The court held that the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress because state troopers had probable cause to stop the defendant for motor vehicle code violations after they observed the defendant’s car crossing into another lane of travel three or four times.

Can Police Stop You For Briefly Crossing Into Another Lane of Travel?

In short, the law is not totally clear in Pennsylvania. It depends on all of the circumstances and how many times you cross the line, and courts have reached conflicting opinions when confronted with different sets of facts.

In Cephus, Pennsylvania State Troopers were traveling westbound on Route 422 in Montgomery County, PA when they saw a silver Cadillac cross the center dotted line dividing the two westbound lanes of travel. After seeing this happen at least once, they activated the dash cam on their police car. The dash cam showed that the Cadillac traveled approximately a couple hundred yards and crossed over the center line three times during that period. The officer could not remember exactly how many times he had seen the Cadillac cross the line in total. Due to the failure of the Cadillac to maintain its lane, the troopers activated their lights and sirens and pulled the car over.

After approaching the vehicle, the troopers smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car and observed numerous air fresheners. They also claimed that the defendant, who was in the driver’s seat, was sweating and seemed nervous. Therefore, they ordered him out of the car. They then asked if they could search the car, and the defendant told them that they could. One of the troopers found a gun in the center console as well as other drug paraphernalia in the vehicle. The defendant passed out.

Gun Charges 

The troopers charged the defendant with various firearms and drug offenses, including Persons Not to Possess a Firearm (VUFA 6105), Firearms not to be Carried Without a License (VUFA 6106), Drug Paraphernalia, and Roadways Laned for Traffic.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the police officers did not have probable cause to stop him and therefore the search was the fruit of the poisonous tree from the unlawful stop. The trial court denied the  motion to suppress, finding that police had probable cause to stop the defendant for a potential violation of 75 Pa.C.S. Sec. 3309(1) of the Motor Vehicle Code.

That section provides that “A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane of travel and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made safely.”

Because a violation of this section requires no further investigation, police must have probable cause to make a stop instead of mere reasonable suspicion. The trial court, however, held that the officers had probable cause because the vehicle had crossed the line at least four times in a relatively short period of time without any obvious explanation such as objects in the road or other hazards.

The Superior Court Appeal

After denying the motion to suppress, the court found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 5-10 years’ incarceration. The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Superior Court affirmed the conviction. The court recognized that there have been inconsistent rulings on how police officers should interpret the statute relating to remaining in one lane of travel. For example, in Commonwealth v. Gleason, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that police did not have probable cause for a stop after seeing a motorist’s tire cross the line two times on only two occasions over a distance of approximately one quarter mile. At the same time, in Commonwealth v. Anderson, the Superior Court upheld the denial of a motion to suppress where the defendant’s vehicle straddled a double yellow line for two blocks and then stopped for an inordinate and inexplicable amount of time without being prompted to do so by traffic signs.

Despite this case seeming to be more like Commonwealth v. Gleason, the Superior Court concluded that crossing the line on at least four occasions over a short period of time provided the officers with probable cause and justified the stop. Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress and the defendant’s conviction. At the same time, it urged the legislature to clarify the statute so that police have additional guidance on what exactly the somewhat-vague statute requires prior to a stop. Even after this case, it likely remains the law in Pennsylvania that briefly crossing into the adjoining lane for a moment or two on one or two occasions will not support a stop, but more than that could provide police with probable cause. This statute, unfortunately, is ripe for abuse because it is very easy for a police officer to claim that a defendant left the lane of travel a couple of times, and it is almost impossible for a defendant to prove otherwise. Fortunately, many officers are now wearing body cameras or have vehicles equipped with dash cams, and this makes it more difficult for officers to fabricate the reasons for a stop.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Attorneys

Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and successful outcomes in cases involving charges such as Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

Case Dismissed: Motion to Suppress Firearm With Obliterated Serial Number Granted

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The criminal defense lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC have continued to win difficult cases in the courtroom. In the case of Commonwealth v. A.T., Philadelphia defense attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won a motion to suppress in a case involving gun charges including Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act Sections 6106, 6108, and 6110. Those charges involve carrying a firearm in a vehicle without a concealed carry permit, carrying a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia, and possessing a firearm with a missing or obliterated serial number. The court’s decision to grant the motion to suppress resulted in the dismissal of all of the gun charges against A.T.

In A.T., Philadelphia police conducted the stop of a car in which the defendant was a passenger. Officers claimed that when they ran the car’s license plate through the NCIC system, the system returned a result indicating that it had no records for the car. The officers, believing that this could possibly, but not definitely, mean that that the car was unregistered, then proceeded to stop the car without any other indications of criminal activity or motor vehicle code violations.

The officers activated their lights and sirens, and the car pulled over on command. The officers claimed that when they approached the car to ask for the paperwork, they were immediately able to smell a potent odor of marijuana. The officer, however, testified that he was able to smell both fresh and burnt marijuana. They then testified that the driver admitted to having smoked marijuana recently.

While dealing with the driver, the officer saw the defendant in the back of the car playing with his cell phone. The officer speculated that the defendant was not trying to engage and was trying to keep the focus away from him. They then saw a backpack next to the defendant and asked him about it, and the defendant said it was his. The officers, while attempting to locate the source of the marijuana odor, searched the bag and found a gun with a serial number which had been filed off. They asked the defendant if it was his gun, and he apparently told them that it was his. They also claimed that the backpack had the defendant’s name on it, thereby further proving that the bag and the gun inside of it belonged to the defendant. Finally, they testified that they found a small amount of marijuana in the center console. In total, officers found one yellow tinted glass jar which contained about a gram of marijuana. They did not find any evidence in the car that marijuana had recently been consumed in the car such as roaches or other paraphernalia.

On paper, the case looked difficult because police claimed that they had smelled marijuana and ultimately found marijuana. As a general rule, police officers may conduct the search of a car and the contents of the car when they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that based on the totality of the circumstances, including the officers’ experience and training, they are likely to find some contraband or evidence of a crime as a result of a search. When police have probable cause to search a car, they usually do not have to get a warrant first unless the car is parked in the suspect’s driveway. Even though Philadelphia prosecutors do not charge people with the possession of small amounts of marijuana anymore, the possession of even a gram of marijuana remains illegal under state and federal law. Therefore, police officers will frequently assert that they had probable cause based on the odor of marijuana to conduct a search that finds some other sort of contraband such as harder drugs or a gun. If the police really could not determine if the car was unregistered and they really smelled marijuana coming from the car, then they would have been justified in conducting the search.

Attorney Goldstein reviewed the discovery, investigated the case, obtained records from PennDOT, and concluded that the police had likely conducted an unlawful search. First, there were issues with the stop of the vehicle because the car turned out to be registered despite its absence from the NCIC system. Second, the statements from the police officers rang false; the idea that the entire car would smell like marijuana from one gram of marijuana in a sealed container in the center console seemed unlikely, and the claims that the defendant would have his name on the backpack carrying an illegal gun and admit that the gun was his seemed like a stretch. Therefore, Attorney Goldstein filed a motion to suppress alleging that police had unlawfully stopped the car because it was in fact registered and that the police were not telling the truth about the ensuing search of the vehicle and questioning of the defendant. The registration issue was a legal issue - whether the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the car in a case where they genuinely, but incorrectly, believed that the car did not have a registration, but the search would involve issues of credibility. Credibility motions are particularly difficult to win because they require the defense to convince the judge that the police are not telling the truth, and the standard for the admissibility of challenged evidence is much lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that would apply at trial.

The trial court scheduled a motion to suppress, and the officers testified to the above information. On cross-examination, however, Attorney Goldstein was first able to show from the PennDOT paperwork that the car was actually registered, thereby proving that the police had no real basis for stopping the car. Attorney Goldstein was then also able to show that the police version of the search should not be believed for the following reasons: 1) the entire car would not smell like marijuana from one gram of marijuana being in a glass jar in the center console, 2) the officer’s testimony that he could smell both burnt and fresh marijuana was absurd, 3) if the driver had really told them that they had just been smoking marijuana, the officers would have investigated and likely arrested the driver for driving under the influence (“DUI”),  and 4) that the police had not taken the backpack which allegedly had the defendant’s name on it into evidence. Obviously, the officer was forced to admit that they had destroyed critical evidence by not preserving a bag which supposedly proved that the gun belonged to the defendant. Attorney Goldstein also highlighted numerous other inconsistencies between the testimony of the officer and the paperwork that he had created and the testimony that he gave at the preliminary hearing.

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

After hearing the testimony of the officer and reviewing the case law on Pennsylvania’s absence of a “good faith exception,” the judge granted the motion to dismiss and precluded prosecutors from introducing evidence of the recovery of the gun or the marijuana at trial. The trial court specifically found that the officers could not be believed because there were just too many new details testified to at the hearing which did not appear in the paperwork. Accordingly, with the motion to suppress granted, prosecutors were obligated to dismiss all of the charges against A.T. Instead of having a felony record and facing significant jail time, A.T. will be eligible to have these serious gun charges expunged.

Police Need More Than Vague Concerns About Officer Safety to Search a Home Without a Warrant

Police Need More Than Vague Concerns About Officer Safety to Search a Home Without a Warrant

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Duke, holding that Pennsylvania State Troopers illegally searched the defendant’s house by walking into his open garage after he told them to leave his property. The Superior Court specifically rejected the idea that police could create exigent circumstances, claim that a person could have been retrieving a weapon without any basis for believing that, and then use those two factors to search someone’s property without a warrant.