PA Superior Court Permits Appeal of Motion to Suppress Despite Guilty Plea

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Singleton, permitting the defendant to appeal the trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress despite the fact that the defendant pleaded guilty. Singleton could have a dramatic impact on plea negotiations throughout the Commonwealth as it suggests that a defendant may be able to litigate a motion to suppress and reserve the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress as part of a negotiated plea. Before Singleton, it was not totally clear whether the Superior Court would reach the merits of an appeal in a case in which the defendant attempted to plead guilty as part of a “conditional guilty plea.”

Types of Guilty Pleas

In general, there are two types of guilty pleas – negotiated guilty pleas and “open” or non-negotiated guilty pleas. In the case of a negotiated guilty plea, the defense and the prosecution reach an agreement as to what charges the defendant will plead guilty and what sentence the judge should impose. For example, if the defendant is charged with felony Robbery but the Commonwealth has a shaky case, the prosecutor may offer a misdemeanor Simple Assault charge and probation in exchange for the guilty plea. The defendant avoids the risk of a felony conviction and jail time, and the prosecution obtains a conviction and restitution for the complainant. Thus, both sides may be happy with the result. When the defendant pleads guilty pursuant to a negotiated guilty plea, the judge may not reject the sentence and impose his or her preferred sentence. Instead, if the judge finds that the negotiated plea is either too harsh or too lenient, the judge must permit the defendant to withdraw the plea and go to trial if the defendant wishes to do so. Alternatively, the defendant may proceed to sentencing and allow the judge to decide on the sentence, which is often going to be worse than what was negotiated.

In the case of an open guilty plea, the defendant pleads guilty to the charges without any kind of negotiations. In many cases, the Commonwealth’s plea offer is simply unreasonable and should be rejected. At the same time, the defendant may not have a viable defense to the charges. The judge, who is tasked with resolving the backload of cases in the criminal justice system, may be willing to sentence the defendant to something significantly less than the sentence requested by the prosecution. Unfortunately, losing a trial is far more likely to result in a jail sentence than pleading guilty. Therefore, the defendant who is unlikely to win his or her case may be better served by pleading guilty and focusing on convincing the judge to impose a lighter sentence than the sentence sought by the Commonwealth. In an open guilty plea, both sides may make recommendations, present witnesses and evidence, and argue to the judge for the recommended sentence. The judge will then decide on the sentence. Open pleas are increasingly common due to the elimination of most of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentence laws.

Conditional Guilty Pleas in Pennsylvania

Following Singleton, there may be a third type of guilty plea called a conditional guilty plea. Conditional pleas are extremely common in New Jersey, but it has not been totally settled whether they are allowed in Pennsylvania. In a conditional guilty plea, a defendant who has lost a pre-trial motion such as a motion to suppress evidence may plead guilty pursuant to negotiations for an agreed upon sentence. As part of the negotiations, the Commonwealth may agree that the defendant can appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. In the case of a normal negotiated or open guilty plea, the defendant retains very few rights on appeal and cannot appeal the denial of a pre-trial motion. A conditional guilty plea allows the defendant to retain the right to appeal specified issues and still enjoy the certainty of the negotiations. Thus, the defendant does not have to risk receiving a greater sentence as a punishment for going to trial solely to preserve appellate rights.

Commonwealth v. Singleton

In Singleton, the defendant was arrested and charged with Possession with the Intent to Deliver. The defendant filed a motion to suppress. At the motions hearing, Philadelphia police officers testified that they were on patrol near a major train terminal which was a known location for drug sales. There had also recently been a number of robberies in the area. Officers testified that they saw the defendant wearing a hoodie which appeared to have a heavy object in the pocket. The officers were concerned that the object could be a weapon, so they approached the defendant, who had sat down on a ledge. As the officers approached, the defendant looked at them, took a black bag out of his sweatshirt, and placed it behind him. The officers continued to believe that the bag could contain a weapon.

Police asked the defendant about the bag, and the defendant did not answer. One of the officers testified that he was able to see through the side of bag and that it contained jars of red syrup, which the officer recognized as codeine syrup. The officers arrested the defendant for PWID and found both heroin and marijuana during a search incident to arrest. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the initial encounter with the defendant was only a mere encounter. The trial court further found that the officers observed drugs in plain view, which gave them the necessary probable cause to arrest the defendant and search him. Because police never officially stopped or searched the defendant prior to viewing the drugs, the court denied the motion. After the trial court denied the motion, the defendant entered into a conditional guilty plea with the prosecution. The plea provided for a sentence of 11.5 to 23 months of incarceration to be followed by five years of probation, and the plea agreement specifically provided that the defendant could appeal the denial of the Motion to Suppress.

On appeal, the Superior Court upheld the trial court’s order denying the Motion to Suppress. However, the case is notable for the fact that the Superior Court agreed to reach the merits of the issue despite the fact that the defendant had pleaded guilty. Normally, the guilty plea makes it impossible to challenge the denial of the Motion to Suppress on appeal. Here, the Superior Court ruled that because the plea agreement reserved the right to appeal and the Commonwealth did not object in its brief, the Court could reach the merits of the appeal.  

If this trend is upheld, Singleton creates less risk and more certainty for both sides as the defendant can accept a pre-trial offer for reduced charges or less jail time while still retaining the ability to challenge a wrongfully denied motion to suppress in the Superior Court. The Commonwealth, meanwhile, saves the time and expense of going to trial in a case in which the real defense was a pre-trial motion and not whether or not the defendant committed the crime. In many drug and gun cases, the real issue will be whether the police conducted a legal search and not whether the defendant possessed the contraband in question. Without the ability to enter into a conditional guilty plea, the defendant who has lost a strong motion to suppress has to choose between going to trial and potentially receiving a worse sentence and pleading guilty and waiving the right to appeal. Now, the defendant may not have to make that unfair choice.

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As always, if you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have won countless pre-trial motions, bench trials, and jury trials, and we have also successfully resolved many cases through negotiations which resulted in excellent outcomes for our clients. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client, so call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our experienced and understanding defense attorneys today.