PA Superior Court Affirms Denial of Motion to Suppress Identification

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Milburn, finding that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s Motion to Suppress identification. In Milburn, the court ultimately concluded that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, thereby defeating his Fourth Amendment suppression claim. They also found that police did not conduct an improperly suggestive “show up” procedure, and so the trial court properly rejected his due process claim.  

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Milburn

On May 4, 2015, the complainant was robbed at gunpoint on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. The robber took the complainant’s iPhone and a backpack containing clothing and medication. This incident took place under a streetlight that was approximately five feet away from the complainant, and he alleged that he was able to see the assailant clearly. After the incident, the assailant instructed the complainant to walk away, which he did. However, he did see the assailant leave the scene in a vehicle with another individual.

The complainant immediately called 9-1-1 and gave the dispatcher a description of his assailant as African American, with a muscular build, medium complexion, and facial hair, and the complainant noted that the robber was wearing black jeans or sweat pants and a gray hoodie sweatshirt. Police arrived on scene and spoke with the complainant. The officers then began to survey the neighborhood while accompanied by the complainant. They utilized the complainant’s “Find My iPhone” application and attempted to locate his phone. However, they were not immediately successful.

A short time later, the officers tried using the “Find My iPhone” application again. This time, they received a notification that the complainant’s phone was in the area of 5th and Erie Avenue in Philadelphia. The officers proceeded to that area and found an A-Plus Mini market. The officers saw a van driving northbound through the gas station parking lot, but there were not any individuals on foot in that area. The van proceeded to exit the lot, but the officers felt that it was driving erratically. The officers then activated their lights. When the van stopped, the officers exited their vehicles and approached with their guns drawn.

As the officers approached the vehicle, they ordered the driver and front seat passenger, the defendant, to place their hands on the steering wheel and dashboard. The driver complied, but the defendant did not. One of the officers claimed that he saw the defendant place a small semiautomatic handgun under his seat. The officers retrieved the gun and placed the defendant in handcuffs. Inside the vehicle, the officer saw a backpack, medication, clothing, and three additional occupants.

As the officers walked the defendant towards the back of the van, the complainant began jumping in his seat in the police car, pointing at the defendant, and nodding his head to indicate that he recognized the defendant as the perpetrator. Police arrested the defendant, conducted a search incident to arrest, and found the complainant’s phone in the defendant’s pocket. The defendant claimed that he had just purchased the phone for ten dollars. The complainant also identified one of the backseat passengers as the second robber. The police obtained a search warrant for the van, and in the van, they found the complainant’s work uniform and name tag. Prosecutors charged the defendant with Robbery, various gun charges, Possession of an Instrument of Crime (“PIC”), Conspiracy, and related charges.

The Motion to Suppress  

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence as well as the complainant’s post-incident identification. The trial court denied both the motion to suppress the physical evidence and the complainant’s identification. The defendant elected to proceed by way of jury trial,  and the jury found him guilty of Robbery, Firearms Not to be Carried Without a License, Carrying a Firearm in Public in Philadelphia, and PIC. The court sentenced him to 7 ½ to 20 years’ incarceration. He appealed to the Superior Court.  

What is a Motion to Suppress an Identification?

Although not as common as motions to suppress physical evidence or statements, a motion to suppress a post-incident identification may be an important tactic in the defense of a criminal case, particularly cases involving Robbery and Burglary charges. However, over the years, Pennsylvania appellate courts have made these motions difficult to win. In general, there are two types of motion to suppress identification. First, the defense may move to exclude a post-incident identification if the circumstances of the identification are such that the identification is so unreliable that the witness should not be allowed to testify to it. These types of motions typically involve unduly suggestive police procedures and complainants who did not have a great opportunity to observe the perpetrator of the crime. Second, the defense may also move to exclude an identification where the police illegally stopped or arrested the defendant and the identification procedure only took place because the defendant was unlawfully in custody. In this situation, the identification would violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights as it would be the fruit of the poisonous tree of the unlawful stop. The court would then exclude the out-of-court identification and conduct a separate analysis of whether there is an independent basis for the witness to make an in-court identification of the defendant.  

Generally, an unlawfully obtained pretrial identification will only be excluded from trial if it was obtained by a procedure so unnecessarily suggestive and conducive to irreparable mistaken identification or if it was tainted by illegal police conduct as to deny the accused due process of law. If a defendant challenges the identification by filing a motion to suppress, the Commonwealth must prove that the identification procedure did not violate the accused’s right to due process or the right to counsel.

In determining whether to admit contested identification evidence when the issue is not whether the Fourth Amendment was violated, the trial court must consider: 1) the opportunity of the witness to view the perpetrator at the time of the crime; 2) the witness’ degree of attention; 3) the accuracy of his prior description of the perpetrator at the confrontation; 4) the level of certainty demonstrated at the confrontation; and 5) the time between the crime and confrontation. Suggestiveness in the identification process is a factor to be considered, but it is not dispositive. In other words, courts often will not prohibit a post-incident identification merely because it was suggestive. As noted in Milburn, the most important factor in addressing the reliability of an identification is the witness’s opportunity to observe the perpetrator at the time of the crime.

To give an extreme example of an impermissible post-incident identification, let’s assume that a defendant is accused of punching a complainant in the back of the head and stealing her purse. This is a robbery. The incident happens in a matter of seconds and the complainant was only able to see the back of her assailant and determine that he was Caucasian, wearing a white shirt and blue jeans. The police then, two hours later, bring two people, but only one is in handcuffs. One is a Caucasian wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, while the other is also a Caucasian man, and is wearing a white shirt, but instead of blue jeans is wearing gym shorts. The one wearing blue jeans is in handcuffs. Neither of these individuals have the complainant’s purse on them. The officer then proceeds to tell the complainant that one of these two is the perpetrator. Consequently, the complainant proceeds to pick the one wearing blue jeans and in handcuffs.  

In this hypothetical, the defendant would have a very good chance of suppressing the post-incident identification. Why? First, the defendant has a strong argument that there was no probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop him. A Caucasian man wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans is not very descriptive and arguably lots of people who would match that description. As such, the defendant in this hypothetical would have a good chance of suppressing the identification on these grounds alone.

However, this is not his only ground to exclude the identification. The defendant could also argue that it should be suppressed because it was suggestive and the complainant had a limited opportunity to observe the assailant. The whole incident only lasted a matter of seconds. Additionally, the hypothetical complainant was not able to see her assailant’s face and was able to give, at best, a very vague description. Finally, the tactics used by the police were highly suggestive. The officer only brought two people to the identification, and only one fit the general description of the assailant. Further, only one of them was in handcuffs. Additionally, the officer told the complainant that one of these people was the one who robbed her and thus suggested that it was the one wearing handcuffs. Thus, this defendant would have strong grounds for suppressing the identification both on Fourth Amendment and Due Process grounds.

Most cases, however, are not this egregious. And over the years the Pennsylvania Superior Court has rarely ruled in favor of the defense. The Superior Court has given great deference to the witness’s supposed opportunity to observe, while ignoring very relevant facts that can skew and taint that person’s memory. For example, if a suspect is in handcuffs during the identification, that does not make it per se impermissibly suggestive even though a reasonable person may believe that because the suspect is in handcuffs, that must be the person who committed the crime.

The Court’s Analysis in Milburn

In Milburn, the Superior Court held that the post-incident identification was not unduly suggestive. The court focused on the complainant’s ability to observe the defendant during the incident. Specifically, the court found that the complainant had ample opportunity to view the defendant’s face during the commission of the crime. The court also focused on the close proximity between the defendant and the complainant, the time between the incident and when Appellant was arrested (three minutes), and how the complainant reacted when he first saw Appellant. The court gave little significance to the fact that Appellant was the only person handcuffed during the identification. Thus, the court found that the identification was not unduly suggestive. Likewise, the Court found that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the van. The police received information from Find my iPhone, which they had successfully used before on numerous occasions, traveled to the area, which was a high crime area, and saw the van driving erratically as if the driver was not focused on the road. Given the close proximity to the scene of the crime, this gave the police reasonable suspicion to stop the van, and once they stopped the van, they had probable cause to arrest the defendant because they saw the gun in plain view. Therefore, the court also denied the motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds, as well.    

Milburn is an illustration of the type of case in which the defendant is unlikely to win a motion to suppress identification. However, it is likely that the law in this area may shift back at least somewhat in the favor of the defense given the rise in police body cameras. Prior to the advent of body worn cameras, the trial court could simply take a witness’s word for it that the witness had a great view of the perpetrator and was certain that he or she had picked out the right person. As the witness tells the story and testifies numerous times ranging from the statements to police to the preliminary hearing to the motions hearing, the witness becomes more and more certain that he or she has in fact picked out the right person. The body cameras, however, often show that at the time of the incident, the witness was not so sure. For example, the witness may not have been able to give a detailed or accurate description to police. Or the camera could show that the police were not particularly neutral in asking the witness to make an identification. In these cases, appellate courts may begin to show less deference to a witness’s claim of certainty when the witness is on video stating something different. Therefore, this is an area of law that is extremely likely to be affected as police increasingly wear body cameras.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys have successfully defended thousands of clients. We have litigated all types of pre-trial motions to suppress and litigated cases involving charges such as Robbery, Burglary, Aggravated Assault and Attempted murder to verdict before judges and juries throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a defense attorney today.