PA Superior Court Reverses Order Granting Motion to Suppress For Lack of Specificity in Grounds

What is a Motion to Suppress? 

The Motion to Suppress is one of the first lines of defense in any case in which the defendant is charged with possessing some kind of contraband. For a defendant who is charged with the possession of guns or drugs, it may be possible to have the evidence excluded from trial and the charges dismissed if the defendant was subject to an illegal search or seizure. In cases where the prosecution is unable to show that police or other law enforcement officers found the evidence in a manner that complies with the requirements of the United Sates and Pennsylvania Constitutions, the evidence could be suppressed by filing a Motion to Suppress. However, Pennsylvania appellate courts have increasingly required defendants to be very specific when asserting the grounds for the Motion to Suppress in the trial court.

Commonwealth v. Banks

In the case of Commonwealth v. Banks, the Superior Court has reversed an order suppressing a firearm and K2 (synthetic marijuana) whichallegedly belonged to the defendant. The Court concluded that although the trial court found that a constitutional violation had occurred, the defendant’s attorney failed to specifically allege that particular constitutional violation either in his written Motion to Suppress or oral statement of the grounds for the Motion which was made prior to the hearing. Accordingly, the Court found that the Commonwealth did not have a fair opportunity to respond to the alleged constitutional violation, and therefore the suppression order should be reversed.

Banks involved a parole search by Pennsylvania State Parole Agents. According to the agents involved, the Parole Board received an anonymous tip that Banks was violating his parole. Based on the tip, two agents went to Banks’ house and knocked on the door. When Banks emerged from the house, the parole agents questioned him on the front porch. They did not see any contraband in the house when the door was open, and they did not enter the house until after they spoke with Banks. Of course, when the agents asked whether Banks had anything in his house which would violate his parole, Banks freely told them that he had a gun and some synthetic marijuana in the house. Following Banks admissions, the agents entered the house and found the contraband. They then called the police. The police obtained a search warrant and recovered the items.

Standards for Probation Searches and Parole Searches

In Pennsylvania, probation officers and parole agents may conduct two types of searches. They may always make routine home visits in order to check on the probationer or parolee and look for any obvious parole violations. Home visits are limited to a plain-view inspection of a residence. Additionally, if they have reasonable suspicion of a parole violation, then parole agents may conduct a full search of the parolee’s residence. In general, anonymous tips do not provide reasonable suspicion because there is no basis for believing them to be trustworthy. Therefore, Banks’ attorneys filed a Motion to Suppress alleging that the firearm and K2 should be suppressed because the parole agents conducted a home search without reasonable suspicion. They further argued that the search was not part of a routine home visit because the agents went out to the house specifically to investigate the anonymous tip.

The trial court disagreed with Banks’ lawyers in part. The court found that the agents violated Banks’ rights, but for different reasons than those alleged in the Motion to Suppress. It found that the agents did not conduct a home search until after Banks confessed to having a gun and synthetic marijuana, and once Banks confessed, the officers clearly had reasonable suspicion to enter the house. However, the court found that the officers conducted the equivalent of a “Terry” stop on Banks by ordering him to come out of the house and submit to their questions. Therefore, the officers were required to have reasonable suspicion for the stop. Because the stop was based entirely on an anonymous tip, the officers did not have reasonable suspicion, and the contraband that they found was the fruit of the poisonous tree and should be suppressed.

Specificity in Motions to Suppress

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court found that Banks’ lawyers had failed to comply with Rule 581(D) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. Under the rules, the defense must “state specifically and with particularity the evidence sought to be suppressed, the grounds for suppression, and the facts and events in support thereof.” In their written motion and subsequent oral grounds, the lawyers mentioned only the suspicion-less search of the residence. They never made any allegation that the interrogation on the porch was conducted without the requisite level of reasonable suspicion. Therefore, the Superior Court held that the Commonwealth was not properly on notice of the grounds for the motion and did not have a fair opportunity to respond. The Court reversed the granting of the motion and remanded the case for trial. It is unclear whether Banks will be able to amend the grounds and re-litigate the motion in the trial court. However, his lawyers will almost certainly try.

Banks is highly illustrative of the fact that the Superior Court is not currently very sympathetic to criminal defendants. The case also shows the importance of litigating in the trial court with a careful focus on the Rules of Criminal Procedure and an eye on making sure that the defendant’s rights are protected in the event of an appeal by either side. If an appellate court can avoid a difficult issue such as whether a gun was properly suppressed by finding waiver on the part of the defense, an appellate court will often do so. Judges do not want to suppress guns, and they will look for ways to avoid doing so. Therefore, it is important to make sure that all possible grounds for a motion to suppress are covered both in the written motion and orally prior to trial. It is also critically important to take all possible steps to protect the record for appeal, which means making appropriate objections and motions so that they are not waived in the event the defendant is convicted at trial.

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully represented thousands of clients in both trial and post-trial proceedings. We have won motions to suppress guns, drugs, and other contraband. We will do everything we can to fight for you and obtain the best possible result at trial or on appeal. Call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session today.