PA Supreme Court: Search Warrant Allows Police to Search Entire Apartment Even if Suspect Has Roommates

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Turpin, holding that having a roommate does not convert a single resident unit into a multi-resident unit for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. This decision is significant because so many people live with a roommate. Nonetheless, if the police have probable cause that one person is engaged in illicit activity in the residence, Turpin allows the police to search the entire residence even if the police know that the suspect has roommates who have their own rooms.  

Commonwealth v. Turpin 

On December 4, 2014, Detective Mellot of the Cumberland County Drug Task Force began investigating Mr. Irvin, the defendant’s roommate based on information received from a confidential informant regarding the sale of heroin. Detective Mellot contacted Mr. Irvin’s parole officer who informed him that he was living in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Based on this information, Detective Mellot conducted surveillance of the residence and observed an unusually high number of individuals making short visits there. 

In mid-February 2016, Detective Mellot interviewed a second confidential informant who stated he purchased heroin from Mr. Irvin on a regular basis and had bought heroin from the defendant’s and Mr. Irvin’s residence. As this information had been corroborated by his surveillance, Detective Mellott arranged for the confidential informant to conduct a controlled buy from Mr. Irvin. While the confidential informant was arranging to meet Mr. Irvin at a nearby business, Detective Mellott surveilled the residence and observed multiple individuals enter and then quickly exit, which Detective Mellott believed was indicative of drug dealing. Detective Mellott then observed two people exit the residence and enter a black Cadillac that Mr. Irvin was known to drive. Detective Temple, who was surveilling the location of the controlled buy, observed the same black Cadillac at the buy location. A male and female then exited the Cadillac and then the male conducted a hand-to-hand transaction with an unknown individual. Afterwards, the male instructed the confidential informant to enter the business. 

At this time, Detective Colare entered the business with the confidential informant and positively identified Mr. Irvin as the male with whom the confidential informant interacted. The detectives observed Mr. Irvin drive back to the residence and enter the property. The confidential informant then provided Detective Mellott with ten bags of heroin, stamped “Blue Magic,” that were purchased from Mr. Irvin. Based on the above information, Detective Mellot obtained a search warrant for Mr. Irvin and the defendant’s residence. 

Police executed the search warrant in February 2015. The defendant was placed in a vehicle by Sergeant Curtis of the Mechanicsburg Police Department and the two discussed the living arrangements of the residence. The defendant told Sergeant Curtis that he and Mr. Irvin both lived there and each occupied one of the two bedrooms. Thereafter, Sergeant Curtis brought the defendant back into the house so he could get his shoes from his bedroom. There was no evidence that the defendant’s bedroom ever had a padlock on the door, and there was not a separate room number or mailbox on the outside of the bedroom door which would make it seem like an individual apartment.

The officers then searched the entire house, including the defendant’s bedroom. Recovered from his room were a firearm, ammunition, six bags of heroin including one bag stamped “Blue Magic,” a bag of marijuana, and $902 in cash. The police also recovered 37 bags of heroin, some stamped “Blue Magic,” and a case of $1,000 from Mr. Irvin’s room as well as 200 bags of heroin from the living room. The police then returned to the house on March 10, 2015 and recovered 80 bags of heroin from the second-floor bathroom, which was adjacent to the defendant’s bedroom. Based on the above, the defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance, and one count each of conspiracy to commit possession with the intent to deliver and receiving stolen property. 

The Defendant’s Motion to Suppress 

The defendant filed a motion to suppress claiming that the search warrant was overbroad because it did not limit the specific areas to be searched to those under the control of Mr. Irvin and the warrant was improperly executed because the police were made aware of its overbroad nature from the defendant’s conversations with Sergeant Curtis. At the suppression hearing, the above facts were put on the record. The defendant also testified at the hearing. He testified that he and Mr. Irvin occupied separated bedrooms at the residence, he would shut his bedroom door when he was not home; Mr. Irvin and he occupied separate bedrooms at the residence; he would shut his bedroom door when he was not home; and that Mr. Irvin was not permitted to enter his bedroom without permission. 

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress. The trial court held that the warrant was not overbroad and that a search warrant to a residence “need not specify each and every room of a residence to be searched.” Further, the trial court held that the search warrant was not improperly executed. After the denial, the defendant proceeded to a jury trial where he was convicted of all charges. The court then subsequently sentenced him to an aggregate term of one year less one day to two years less two days of county imprisonment to be followed by three years of probation. The defendant then filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court denied the defendant’s appeal. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which was granted. 

Does a Search Warrant Have to Be Specific? 

Yes. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the issuance of any search warrant except one that is specific and particular to the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. As such, the police are limited to searching in those areas where the suspected contraband could be found. Usually, the police are searching for guns and drugs and therefore the police have a broad scope of places that these items could be found. However, let’s say hypothetically that the police have a search warrant for a missing tuba. Obviously, tubas are very large and heavy and probably would not fit in a shoebox. So, in this hypothetical, if the police were searching only for a tuba and they looked into a shoebox and found contraband, then the defendant could have a valid argument at suppressing this contraband because the police went beyond the scope of the search warrant.  

I Live in an Apartment Building. If the Police Get a Search Warrant for My Neighbor’s Apartment, Can They Search Mine Too? 

No. In prior decisions, the Pennsylvania appellate courts have been very clear that a search warrant has to be particularized to the residence that is being searched. To give an example of this, let’s assume that a defendant lives at 123 Broad Street and that it is a multi-tenant building. If the police were to get a search warrant for only 123 Broad Street and they search every apartment in 123 Broad Street and the police find contraband in the defendant’s apartment, then he will have a very good argument for suppressing that contraband because the search warrant was not specific enough for the defendant’s house. However, this was not the issue in the instant case. In the instant case, the residence in question was a single living unit, not a multi-tenant unit as stated in the above hypothetical. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the defendant’s appeal. In its opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the federal rule which allows the police to search the entire residence even if the target of the search warrant has roommates. The Court went on to say that a roommate can obtain relief if it is shown that his particular room was a separate and independent unit. It is not enough that the roommates are prohibited from entering the other’s room without permission. As such, the defendant will not be entitled to relief and therefore he will not get a new trial.  

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