The criminal defense lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC have continued to win difficult cases in the courtroom. In the case of Commonwealth v. A.T., Philadelphia defense attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won a motion to suppress in a case involving gun charges including Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act Sections 6106, 6108, and 6110. Those charges involve carrying a firearm in a vehicle without a concealed carry permit, carrying a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia, and possessing a firearm with a missing or obliterated serial number. The court’s decision to grant the motion to suppress resulted in the dismissal of all of the gun charges against A.T.
In A.T., Philadelphia police conducted the stop of a car in which the defendant was a passenger. Officers claimed that when they ran the car’s license plate through the NCIC system, the system returned a result indicating that it had no records for the car. The officers, believing that this could possibly, but not definitely, mean that that the car was unregistered, then proceeded to stop the car without any other indications of criminal activity or motor vehicle code violations.
The officers activated their lights and sirens, and the car pulled over on command. The officers claimed that when they approached the car to ask for the paperwork, they were immediately able to smell a potent odor of marijuana. The officer, however, testified that he was able to smell both fresh and burnt marijuana. They then testified that the driver admitted to having smoked marijuana recently.
While dealing with the driver, the officer saw the defendant in the back of the car playing with his cell phone. The officer speculated that the defendant was not trying to engage and was trying to keep the focus away from him. They then saw a backpack next to the defendant and asked him about it, and the defendant said it was his. The officers, while attempting to locate the source of the marijuana odor, searched the bag and found a gun with a serial number which had been filed off. They asked the defendant if it was his gun, and he apparently told them that it was his. They also claimed that the backpack had the defendant’s name on it, thereby further proving that the bag and the gun inside of it belonged to the defendant. Finally, they testified that they found a small amount of marijuana in the center console. In total, officers found one yellow tinted glass jar which contained about a gram of marijuana. They did not find any evidence in the car that marijuana had recently been consumed in the car such as roaches or other paraphernalia.
On paper, the case looked difficult because police claimed that they had smelled marijuana and ultimately found marijuana. As a general rule, police officers may conduct the search of a car and the contents of the car when they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that based on the totality of the circumstances, including the officers’ experience and training, they are likely to find some contraband or evidence of a crime as a result of a search. When police have probable cause to search a car, they usually do not have to get a warrant first unless the car is parked in the suspect’s driveway. Even though Philadelphia prosecutors do not charge people with the possession of small amounts of marijuana anymore, the possession of even a gram of marijuana remains illegal under state and federal law. Therefore, police officers will frequently assert that they had probable cause based on the odor of marijuana to conduct a search that finds some other sort of contraband such as harder drugs or a gun. If the police really could not determine if the car was unregistered and they really smelled marijuana coming from the car, then they would have been justified in conducting the search.
Attorney Goldstein reviewed the discovery, investigated the case, obtained records from PennDOT, and concluded that the police had likely conducted an unlawful search. First, there were issues with the stop of the vehicle because the car turned out to be registered despite its absence from the NCIC system. Second, the statements from the police officers rang false; the idea that the entire car would smell like marijuana from one gram of marijuana in a sealed container in the center console seemed unlikely, and the claims that the defendant would have his name on the backpack carrying an illegal gun and admit that the gun was his seemed like a stretch. Therefore, Attorney Goldstein filed a motion to suppress alleging that police had unlawfully stopped the car because it was in fact registered and that the police were not telling the truth about the ensuing search of the vehicle and questioning of the defendant. The registration issue was a legal issue - whether the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the car in a case where they genuinely, but incorrectly, believed that the car did not have a registration, but the search would involve issues of credibility. Credibility motions are particularly difficult to win because they require the defense to convince the judge that the police are not telling the truth, and the standard for the admissibility of challenged evidence is much lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that would apply at trial.
The trial court scheduled a motion to suppress, and the officers testified to the above information. On cross-examination, however, Attorney Goldstein was first able to show from the PennDOT paperwork that the car was actually registered, thereby proving that the police had no real basis for stopping the car. Attorney Goldstein was then also able to show that the police version of the search should not be believed for the following reasons: 1) the entire car would not smell like marijuana from one gram of marijuana being in a glass jar in the center console, 2) the officer’s testimony that he could smell both burnt and fresh marijuana was absurd, 3) if the driver had really told them that they had just been smoking marijuana, the officers would have investigated and likely arrested the driver for driving under the influence (“DUI”), and 4) that the police had not taken the backpack which allegedly had the defendant’s name on it into evidence. Obviously, the officer was forced to admit that they had destroyed critical evidence by not preserving a bag which supposedly proved that the gun belonged to the defendant. Attorney Goldstein also highlighted numerous other inconsistencies between the testimony of the officer and the paperwork that he had created and the testimony that he gave at the preliminary hearing.