The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. McCleary, holding that suppression of the evidence is not required when Philadelphia Police Officers violate their own police department’s directives. In McCleary, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ruled that drugs recovered by the police officers may be admissible at trial even though police did not follow department protocol related to obtaining consent to a search of a private home.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. McCleary
In McCleary, Philadelphia police officers responded to a radio call for a burglary in progress at a certain address. When they arrived at that address, they walked into the eventual-defendant’s house through an open door. In the living room, they found the defendant speaking with two other police officers. The arriving officers relieved the two who had already arrived and tried to figure out what was going on.
The defendant told the police officers that a woman who was present on the scene had tried to break into his home and that he had a valid Protection from Abuse (“PFA”) order against her. The woman responded that she lived there, had the right to be present in the home, and that she had belongings in the second-floor bedroom which would prove that she lived there. The officers did not take any steps to verify if the defendant in fact had a valid PFA.
Instead, the officers asked the defendant if they could see if the woman had belongings in the second-floor bedroom. The defendant twice told them that they could. The officers then walked upstairs to the bedroom. In the bedroom, they found in plain view a scale, a sandwich bag with marijuana, a box of unused drug packaging, eleven bags of crack cocaine, and clear plastic Ziploc bags. The defendant told the officers that the drugs belonged to him. The officers arrested him and charged him with Possession with the Intent to Deliver.
Motion to Suppress the Drugs
The defendant filed an omnibus pre-trial motion to suppress his statements and the drugs. The trial court held a hearing on the motion to suppress and ultimately granted the motion to suppress. The trial judge found that police violated with Philadelphia Police Department Directive 5.7, Sections 12 through 16, which address the procedure by which Philadelphia Police Officers are expected to obtain valid consent to search a home. The court found that the officers violated their own police directives by failing to obtain signed consent, failing to inform the defendant of his right to refuse consent, failing to consult with a supervisor, and failing to verify the defendant’s valid PFA and arrest the woman who was alleged violating it. The trial court granted the motion to suppress and ruled that the evidence would be inadmissible at trial, thereby essentially excluding the Commonwealth’s entire case.
The Commonwealth’s Appeal
The Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court. In the appeal, the Commonwealth argued that Philadelphia Police Directives do not have the force of law. The Commonwealth argued that because police are not required by law or the constitution to follow them, the remedy for a violation of the directives should not be suppression of the evidence.
The Superior Court agreed with the Commonwealth’s arguments. It found that exclusion of the evidence via a successful Motion to Suppress is only required where the Government has violated a person’s right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure as provided by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Exclusion is not automatically warranted simply because the police failed to comply with a Rule of Criminal Procedure or the police department’s directives or regulations. Instead, suppression is only required when the police violate the constitution or certain statutes.
When can police search a home without a warrant?
The Superior Court held that the question was not whether police violated their directives; instead, the question which the trial court should have addressed was whether the police obtained constitutionally valid consent to search the property. Although law enforcement officers must ordinary obtain a search warrant prior to searching a home, there are some exceptions to this rule. One of the main exceptions to the warrant requirement is consent. If you tell the police that they can search your house, then they do not have to get a warrant prior to doing so.
How will a court decide if police voluntarily obtained consent to search a home?
In evaluating consent, previous appellate decisions have suggested that courts consider the following factors:
- the presence or absence of police excesses;
- whether there was physical contact;
- whether police directed the citizen’s movements;
- police demeanor and manner of expression;
- the location and time of the interdiction;
- the content of the questions and statements
- the existence and character of the initial investigative detention, including its degree of coerciveness;
- the degree to which the transition between the traffic stop/investigative detention and the subsequent encounter can be viewed as seamless, thus suggesting to a citizen that his movements may remain subject to police restraint; and
- whether there was an express admonition to the effect that the citizen-subject is free to depart, which is a potent, objective factor.
Here, the Court evaluated the factors and found that there was nothing coercive about the police request to see the rest of the home. Certainly, they should have followed their directives, but their failure to do so did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ruled that the drugs may be admissible in the prosecution for Possession with the Intent to Deliver.
Notably, one of the three judges on this panel dissented, arguing that the trial court had in fact found that the police officers simply were not credible on the issue of whether they truly obtained consent. The trial court simply considered the violation of the directives as part of analyzing whether the police were telling the truth. This is important because once the defense files a motion to suppress in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth must produce sufficient evidence to show that it is more likely than not that the police complied with the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions during the search and/or interrogation. If the trial judge finds that the police are not credible, then the judge may grant the motion to suppress for that reason even if what the police claim they did was legal. Thus, on remand, the defense may still argue that the judge found that the police were not credible and that the judge should clarify his or her opinion. However, it is clear that as a matter of law, a violation of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Directives does not automatically result in suppression of the evidence.
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