Police Need More Than Vague Concerns About Officer Safety to Search a Home Without a Warrant

Philadelphia Drug Charges Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Drug Charges Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Duke, holding that Pennsylvania State Troopers illegally searched the defendant’s house by walking into his open garage after he told them to leave his property. The Superior Court specifically rejected the idea that police could create exigent circumstances, claim that a person could have been retrieving a weapon without any basis for believing that, and then use those two factors to search someone’s property without a warrant.

The Facts of Duke

In Duke, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers went to the defendant’s house in York County, PA looking for his son. When the troopers arrived, the defendant was standing at the end of his driveway holding a small dog. The defendant told the troopers that his son was in jail in Lancaster County Prison and therefore not home. The troopers asked the defendant for permission to look around the house to confirm that the son was not there. The defendant told the troopers that they could not. The defendant, holding his dog, then walked up the driveway toward his garage.

The Illegal Search of the Garage

Although the defendant told the troopers they could not conduct a search and did not give them consent to be on the property, they followed him up to the garage. The troopers then saw inside the garage and observed a bow and arrow, a crossbow, and a long gun or rifle. They also smelled marijuana. Then they entered the garage, without consent, and found marijuana plants in the garage. They arrested the defendant, obtained a search warrant, and found additional marijuana plants in the home. They charged the defendant with Possession with the Intent to Deliver.

Motion to Suppress the Drugs

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the marijuana in the trial court, arguing that police only obtained the search warrant for the marijuana as a result of their illegal entry into his property and ultimately garage. Therefore, the marijuana that they found should be considered the fruit of the poisonous tree despite the fact that they subsequently obtained a search warrant. The defendant also moved to suppress any statements that he made due to the police failing to provide Miranda warnings.  

The trial court held a hearing on the motion to suppress. The troopers testified, without basis, that they believed that the defendant was lying about the location of his son. They followed him up the driveway because they were unsure what he was planning to do and believed that he could be going for a weapon. They also testified that the defendant had said that there was no way that the troopers were getting into the house, and one of the troopers admitted that the defendant may have asked them to leave the property, although he was not sure.

The defendant then testified and also called one of the troopers to testify, but unsurprisingly, the court found that the troopers that most helped the Commonwealth’s case were more credible than the defendant or the other trooper who testified and accepted their version of events. The court, therefore, found that the troopers were acting solely in the basis of ensuring officer safety and therefore were justified in going into the defendant’s home without a warrant. The court denied the motion to suppress and found the defendant guilty of felony Possession with Intent to Deliver following a waiver trial. The court sentenced him to three years’ probation.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court initially denied the appeal, but following a helpful ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court was required to reconsider the case. This time, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the defendant. The court noted that warrantless searches of a suspect’s house are per se unconstitutional unless a specifically established and well-delineated exception to the warrant requirements applies. One exception to the warrant requirement is when probable cause and exigent circumstances are present. In determining whether exigent circumstances exist, a court should look at:

1)    The gravity of the offense,

2)    Whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed,

3)    Whether there is above and beyond a clear showing of probable cause,

4)    Whether there is a strong reason to believe that the suspect is within the premises being entered,

5)    Whether there is a likelihood that the suspect will escape if not swiftly apprehended,

6)    Whether the entry was peaceable, and

7)    The time of the entry.

Because an exigent circumstances analysis requires the Commonwealth to justify a warrantless search of a home, the Commonwealth must prove an urgent need to act and that police action without a warrant was imperative. Therefore, the Commonwealth must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the circumstances surrounding the opportunity to search were truly exigent. Further, police may not rely upon exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless entry when the exigency derives from their own actions.

Here, the trial court erred in determining that police properly conducted a warrantless search of the defendant’s property. The court noted that the analysis should have begun with an acknowledgement that once the defendant denied the troopers his consent to search the property, the troopers were violating his Fourth Amendment rights. Because the troopers did not have a search warrant, they could remain on the property only if there were exigent circumstances. The court recognized that it was simply unreasonable to conclude that the defendant had some plan to grab a weapon and injure the troopers. Instead, the defendant was holding a small dog and simply began to walk back towards his house. There was no basis from the defendant’s demeanor or actions that he was planning on grabbing a weapon. Therefore, at the time that the troopers refused to leave the property and began following the defendant, they had already begun violating his rights, and any observations of the marijuana plants in the garage were therefore fruit of the poisonous tree.

Although courts have carved out innumerable exceptions to allow the police to search people who are walking down the street or are in motor vehicles, courts remain extremely reluctant to allow the police to enter a suspect’s home without a warrant. This case reaffirms that police must truly be acting in response to an emergency in order to do so. Therefore, while courts are often eager to credit an officer’s testimony that he or she was acting out of concerns of officer safety, the courts typically apply more scrutiny when the search involves a home.

Can the Police Search a Garage Without a Warrant?

Finally, it is important to note that there is no difference between the search of a suspect’s garage and his or her home. The police need a search warrant for either one. In Pennsylvania and under federal law, the police do not need a warrant to search an automobile when the automobile is parked somewhere other than a suspect’s driveway. Instead, they need only probable cause because an automobile can be easily moved. Unlike a car, however, police cannot search a home or a garage based solely on probable cause. In the absence of exigent circumstances or the presence of some other exception, they must also obtain a search warrant prior to searching a garage or a house even if they have probable cause.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Attorneys Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Attorneys Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and successful outcomes in cases involving charges such as Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.