gun charges

PA Superior Court: Back Seat Passenger Not Automatically in Possession of Drugs and Guns in the Front of Car

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Parrish, reversing the defendant’s conviction for Possession with the Intent to Deliver (“PWID”), Conspiracy, Possession of a Controlled Substance, Paraphernalia, and gun charges such as Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act Section 6106. In Parrish, the Superior Court found that the evidence was insufficient to convict Parrish of the gun and drug charges because Parrish was merely the back seat passenger in a car which had guns and drugs in the front of the car.  

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Parrish

Parrish involved a motor vehicle stop. Police pulled a car over in Luzerne County for having illegally tinted windows. The vehicle pulled over on command, but as police approached the car, they noticed that it was rocking back and forth as if people were moving around inside of it. They could not see what caused the rocking because of the tinted windows. When the police got up to the car, the driver of the car rolled down the window. The officers immediately smelled marijuana and saw a plastic bag containing marijuana in plain view. They also saw the driver straddling the center console between the two front seats and the grip of a silver handgun protruding from under the front passenger seat. Obviously, that is a strange place for the driver of the car to sit. They saw the defendant, Parrish, seated behind the driver’s seat with his hands on the headrest of the driver’s seat.

Because they saw drugs and a gun in plain view, the officers immediately arrested the driver and Parrish. They searched the entire car. They found a black bag on the passenger side in the front of the car. That bag contained a loaded gun, 250 packets of heroin, 12 packets of methamphetamine, a baggie of loose heroin, two scales, and other drug paraphernalia and ammunition. They found marijuana on the passenger-side door and a .40 caliber handgun protruding from underneath the front passenger-side seat. The glove compartment contained an extra magazine of bullets, and in the trunk, they found a bulletproof vest. They found $1,335 in cash on the defendant and $2,168 on the driver. Parrish cooperated with the police during his arrest. He gave his real name, and he did not attempt to run.

Gun and Drug Charges Based on Constructive Possession

Police charged Parrish with various drug and gun charges, as well as Receiving Stolen Property. Before trial, the court separated the felon in possession of a firearm charge from the remaining charges so that the jury would not be prejudiced by knowing that the defendant had a prior criminal record. The defendant then proceeded by way of jury trial, and the jury convicted him of all charges.

At trial, police testified to the above facts. They also confirmed that Parrish was not the registered owner of the car, and he did not have a key to the glove compartment or trunk. Police also believed that based on the positions of the men in the car, the defendant was probably not the driver. They did not test any of the items for fingerprints or DNA. The Commonwealth also presented an expert witness to testify that based on the totality of the circumstances, the drugs in the bag were likely for sale and possessed with the intent to deliver.

In this case, the defense presented evidence, as well. The defendant called a friend to testify that he had been at a party at the friend’s house all afternoon on the day of the arrest. Parrish stayed at the party until approximately 2 am. The friend then asked the driver of the car to drive the defendant home. When the defendant left the party, he was not carrying a satchel or any kind of bag. The friend also saw defendant lay down in the back seat when the defendant got into the car. The jury convicted the defendant of all charges, and the trial court sentenced him to 88 to 176 months of incarceration in state prison.

The Appeal of the Criminal Case

The defendant filed post-sentence motions for reconsideration of the sentence, for a new trial, and for discovery which the prosecution had apparently not provided prior to trial. The trial court denied those motions, and the defendant appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant raised four issues:

  1. whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the convictions,
  2. whether the trial court should have awarded a new trial based on the weight of the evidence,
  3. whether the court abused its discretion in allowing one of the police officers to testify as an expert witness that the fact that there were two guns in the car meant that one probably belonged to the defendant, and
  4. that the sentence was illegal because the court ordered a restitution payment in a case with no victim.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court only addressed the first issue because it resolved the case in the defendant's favor. The court noted that sufficiency of the evidence claims involve viewing all of the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict winner and determining whether there is sufficient evidence to enable the fact-finder to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, a conviction may be sustained entirely based on circumstantial evidence, but a jury is not permitted to simply guess. 

Here, the jury convicted Parrish of both gun charges and drug charges. Both types of charges required the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Parrish possessed the illegal items. Because the items were not physically on him, the prosecution’s case depended on a constructive possession theory. Possession can be found by proving actual possession, constructive possession, or joint constructive possession. Constructive possession exists when the defendant has the power to control the contraband and the intent to exercise that control. It may be proven by circumstantial evidence. At the same time, the defendant’s mere presence at the place where contraband is found or secreted is insufficient, standing alone, to prove that he exercised dominion or control over the items. Location and proximity to contraband alone are thus not conclusive of guilt. Instead, the Commonwealth must be able to prove at least that a defendant knew of the existence and location of the contraband.

Here, the court reversed the conviction because the defendant was sitting in the back of the car and all of the guns and drugs were in the front. Further, the evidence established that Parrish was not carrying any type of bag when he entered the car, he did not have the keys to the car, and he was not the owner or operator of it. There was no evidence that he had ever been seated in either of the car’s front seats. Neither of the recovered firearms was registered to him, and the police had failed to test any of the items for fingerprints or DNA. The Commonwealth also failed to present any evidence whatsoever that the defendant knew of the contents of the black bag in the front because the bag was opaque. The court also rejected the idea that the defendant could have moved from the front of the vehicle to the back due to his height and weight and the size of the vehicle. The court also ignored the testimony of the Commonwealth’s expert witness, which was likely improper, and it ultimately reversed the defendant’s conviction.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Constructive possession is an issue that often comes up in gun cases and drug cases. In many cases involving traffic stops, the contraband in the vehicle is not actually physically on the defendant. In these types of cases, there are often defenses based on constructive possession because the prosecution may not be able to prove who in the car, if anyone, possessed the prohibited items. Even where the drugs or guns are in the actual possession of the defendant, there may be constitutional defenses to the search and seizure of the vehicle and its occupants. If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation for contraband recovered during a car stop, we can help. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer today.

Recent Case Results - Motion to Suppress and Speedy Trial Motions Granted

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

The Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Goldstein Mehta LLC continue to obtain outstanding results both in and out of the court room. Our defense lawyers have fought for successful outcomes in cases involving a wide variety of charges including robbery, burglary, assault, probation violations and probation detainers, and gun charges. Some of our recent success stories include: 

Commonwealth v. G. – Motion to Suppress Confession for Lack of Miranda Warnings Granted in Shooting Case

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

In Commonwealth v. G., Attorney Goldstein successfully moved for the suppression of an incriminating statement in a case in which the defendant was charged with gun charges including Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (“VUFA”) Sections 6108, 6106, and 6105 as well as conspiracy, tampering with evidence, and recklessly endangering another person. The Commonwealth alleged that G. accompanied his co-defendants to a location where a shooting broke out. After the complainants returned fire and shot one of the co-defendants, G. allegedly took the gun and hid it. When G. went to visit his friend at the hospital, police arrested him and began interrogating him, resulting in a confession which implicated G. in hiding the gun.

Attorney Goldstein moved to suppress the statement and the firearm due to violations of the Miranda rule. Pennsylvania and federal law both require the police to read suspects their Miranda warnings prior to interrogating them. Prior to asking any questions which could lead to incriminating answers, police must advise a suspect who has been arrested and taken into custody that the suspect has:

  1. The right to remain silent,
     
  2. The right to an attorney and that the attorney will be paid for by the government if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, and
     
  3. That anything the suspect says can be used against them in court.

Shortly before trial, prosecutors admitted that detectives had actually interrogated G. twice. First, they interrogated him immediately upon his arrival at the police station when they had not yet provided him with Miranda warnings at that time. After obtaining a confession, police quickly provided G. with Miranda warnings, questioned him again, and obtained a signed statement.

Attorney Goldstein successfully moved to have both statements suppressed due to detective’s failure to provide Miranda warnings prior to the first interrogation. Under federal law, police may not intentionally fail to provide Miranda warnings in order to obtain a confession, then provide warnings, and quickly re-interrogate the defendant after providing the warnings. Instead, federal courts have applied a sort of “good faith exception” when evaluating whether prosecutors may use a second, Mirandized statement which is substantially similar to a prior un-Mirandized statement. Where police make a mistake in failing to provide Miranda warnings or where the circumstances change enough so that the second statement is not directly related to the first, the statement may become admissible. The Commonwealth attempted to justify the failure to warn by arguing that it had been inadvertent and that there was a break in the chain between the first and second interrogations due to the passage of time. 

Here, Attorney Goldstein successfully argued that the police intentionally failed to provide Miranda warnings during the first statement. Additionally, there was no break in the chain between the two interrogations. The second interrogation happened almost immediately, took place in the same location, and involved the same police detective. The trial court agreed and granted the Motion to Suppress, ruling that both statements could not be used at trial. Once the statements were excluded, the Commonwealth agreed that it would not appeal the court’s ruling if G. accepted a plea deal for a misdemeanor charge and probation. The successful Motion to Suppress helped G. avoid a felony gun conviction and years in state prison.


Commonwealth v. A. – Robbery, Burglary, and Assault Charges Dismissed for Speedy Trial Violation.

In Commonwealth v. A., Attorney Goldstein successfully moved to have all charges against the client dismissed due to the prosecution’s violation of Pennsylvania Speedy Trial Rules, specifiically Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600(A). A. and a co-defendant were charged with dressing up as police officers and forcing their way into a massage parlor. Once inside, the defendants allegedly demanded money from the employees. The employees called the police, and the defendants were arrested inside the massage parlor. The Commonwealth immediately brought charges for robbery, burglary, assault, and other related charges.

Unfortunately for the prosecution, the Commonwealth brought the charges without completing its investigation. At the first trial listing, the Commonwealth was not prepared to proceed because it had improperly failed to turn over critical witness statements and evidence in advance of trial. The trial court marked the continuance as a Commonwealth continuance request, and by the time the second jury trial listing arrived, the defendant had been awaiting trial for two years.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600(A) requires that all criminal defendants be brought to trial within 365 days of the filing of the criminal Complaint. There are exceptions for things like court continuances and circumstances outside of the prosecution’s control, but in order to qualify for an exception, the Commonwealth must show that its prosecutors acted with due diligence in prosecuting the case. In this case, Attorney Goldstein successfully argued that the judge at the first trial listing had already found that the prosecution acted without due diligence in failing to provide witness statements and other discovery materials in advance of the first trial date. Because the Commonwealth never asked the first judge to reconsider the ruling in writing, Rule 600 barred the Commonwealth from asking the new trial judge to reconsider the first judge’s ruling without some showing of obvious error on the part of the first judge. The court agreed and dismissed all of the charges in this extremely serious case.


Commonwealth v. M. – Car Theft Charges Dismissed at Preliminary Hearing

In Commonwealth v. M., the client was charged with multiple counts of Receiving Stolen Property, Theft by Unlawful Taking, Unauthorized Use of an Automobile, and Theft from a Motor Vehicle. Prosecutors alleged that in one case, M. stole the complainant’s car and drove it around for a night before leaving it abandoned on a nearby street. Further, numerous valuable items were missing from the car, leading to additional allegations that M. had stolen the items. 

In a second case which had been joined for the preliminary hearing, prosecutors alleged that M. broke into a parked car, stole valuable items, and transported those items to his house. When prosecutors executed a search warrant on M.'s house, they found M. and another gentleman in the living room along with the stolen items. Neither man was closer to the items, said anything incriminating, or attempted to flee, and the other man's hospital ID had actually been found by police in the stolen car in the first case.  

In both cases, the prosecution attempted to rely entirely on hearsay at the preliminary hearing under the Superior Court's opinion in Commonwealth v. Ricker. The prosecution sought to have a police detective, who had no personal knowledge of who took the car or took items from the other car, testify that a witness who failed to appear for court saw M. driving the car on the night in question.

Attorney Goldstein’s repeated objections to this hearsay testimony led to it being excluded from evidence at the preliminary hearing, and without the hearsay, the evidence was completely insufficient for the preliminary hearing judge to hold M. for court. This was particularly true in light of the fact that the other gentleman's hospital wristband was found by police in the stolen car. Accordingly, the court dismissed all charges against M. This case shows that even with the trend of judges permitting more and more hearsay at preliminary hearings, there are still limits. This is especially true in Philadelphia where judges tend to require that witnesses have some level of personal knowledge before they will hold a case for court. 


Probation Detainers Lifted – In the last six weeks, our Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys have successfully moved to have probation detainers lifted for three separate clients who were on probation and subsequently arrested on new charges. This includes the lifting of a probation detainer for a client who was on probation for a gun charge and who was arrested on a new case of Possession with the Intent to Deliver.


State v. D. Prosecution Agrees to Dismiss All Charges in New Jersey Prison Contraband Case

In State v. D., the client was charged with third degree indictable offenses in New Jersey for allegedly smuggling drugs into the prison during a visit with a friend. The prosecution obtained both video of the incident and phone calls which it claimed implicated D. in the offense. After convincing the Assistant Prosecutor that even if real, the phone calls would not be admissible against D. due to violations of New Jersey wiretap and recording laws, the prosecution agreed to dismiss all charges. D. will avoid a felony conviction and jail time.


Commonwealth v. K. – All Charges Dismissed in Third Strike Carjacking (Robbery of a Motor Vehicle) Case.

K. was charged with stealing his ex-girlfriend’s car by snatching the keys out of her hand and driving off in the car. Although this allegation would only have been Robbery as a felony of the second degree, the case became a third strike and a carjacking because of the fact that K. allegedly took a car. Carjacking (Robbery of a Motor Vehicle) is considered a crime of violence under Pennsylvania law for purposes of the three strikes rule. Due to prior convictions, K. would have faced a mandatory 25-50 years in prison if convicted of Robbery of a Motor Vehicle because carjacking is a “strike” case. Fortunately, our criminal defense attorneys were able to have all charges dismissed at the preliminary hearing level.


Commonwealth v. J. – Our criminal defense lawyers were able to successfully negotiate a misdemeanor offer of probation for a client who was initially charged with F1 Strangulation, Robbery, and Aggravated Assault. First, we were able to have the strangulation charge dismissed at the preliminary hearing and the other felonies graded as felonies of the second degree. Once the felonies were no longer F1 strike offenses, the Commonwealth’s offer substantially improved, and we were eventually able to negotiate a misdemeanor probationary offer for the client, thereby avoiding jail time and a felony conviction.


Criminal Defense Attorney Demetra P. Mehta, Esq.

Criminal Defense Attorney Demetra P. Mehta, Esq.

Commonwealth v. A. – All charges against A. were dismissed after our defense lawyers negotiated for A. to participate in the domestic violence diversionary program. After A. completed community service, counseling, and paid a small fine, the Commonwealth withdrew Simple Assault, Terroristic Threats, and Recklessly Endangering Another Person charges against A.


Commonwealth v. R. - The client was arrested and charged with Robbery, Assault, and related charges while on probation for a serious offense. Because there was clear video of the incident occurring, the client was hoping to obtain a plea deal for the shortest possible sentence. The client's previous attorney had been unable to negotiate for anything less than a 1-2 year state prison sentence. After retaining Goldstein Mehta LLC, our defense lawyers were able to negotiate a sentence of 11.5 - 23 months with work release eligibility and no additional jail time on the direct probation violation. 


Charged with a crime? Speak with a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or are interested in appealing a conviction, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully resolved countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 


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Defenses to Weapons and Firearms Charges and Recent Helpful Supreme Court Caselaw

Defenses to Weapons and Firearms Charges and Recent Helpful Supreme Court Caselaw

If you are charged with a gun or other weapons offense, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to evaluate your case, investigate and analyze potential defenses, and provide you with all of the options. Call 267-225-2545 now for a free consultation.