Gun Charges

PA Superior Court: A really specific anonymous tip might be enough for a stop.

Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Price, holding that a very specific anonymous tip might provide the reasonable suspicion necessary for police to conduct a Terry stop. This case is a disastrous decision for civil liberties and Fourth Amendment rights which defies common sense and ignores decades of Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Superior Court precedent.

The Facts of Price

In Price, the defendant was charged with various firearms offenses including possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, firearms not to be carried without a license, and possession of a firearm in the City of Philadelphia. Price filed a motion to suppress the gun, and the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion.

At the motion to suppress hearing, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of a Philadelphia Police Officer. The officer testified that he was on routine patrol with his partner when he received a radio call to respond to the 5100 block of Willows Ave. The officer testified that he had been on the force for seven years, and he knew that the 5100 block of Willows Ave is an area where violent crime is prevalent. He testified that the radio call provided the information that a black male, wearing a white t-shirt and gray shorts, was driving a silver Lexus with a license plate reading GWL8569, and was carrying a firearm. The officer had also learned that the radio call was the result of a call to 911.

The officers drove to 51st and Willows Avenue within a minute of receiving the broadcast and found a silver Lexus stopped at a stop sign. The officers were able to see that the driver was a black male who was wearing a white t-shirt, and they saw that the license plate read GWL8568, meaning it differed only by one digit from the number provided to 911. The officers activated their lights and sirens and stopped the vehicle. The Lexus pulled over, and the officers approached the vehicle. They could then see that the defendant was wearing gray shorts in addition to the white t-shirt. The officers opened the door and asked the defendant to step out. He did, and as he got out, the officer could see that he had a large bulge in the stomach area of his waistband. The officers searched the defendant and found a gun in his waistband.

 As the officers were recovering the gun, a woman approached them. She told police that she was the person who had called 911 and that they had arrested the right guy. She asked the officers if they had recovered the gun. The officers noted that at first, this woman was standing outside of the defendant’s view and seemed to be nervous. She later told them that she had called 911 because she saw the defendant with the gun and bullets. She told the officers that she saw the defendant put bullets in the trunk. Police asked the defendant if there was anything else in the car, and he confirmed that there were bullets in the trunk.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The defense argued that at the time of the stop, police were relying on an entirely anonymous radio call and had no way to verify whether the call, no matter how specific, contained accurate and reliable information. Decades of Pennsylvania case law, including Commonwealth v. Jackson and Commonwealth v. Hawkins, have held that anonymous tips do not provide police with any level of reasonable suspicion or probable cause to make a stop unless the police are able to corroborate that information prior to the stop. Nonetheless, relying on a recent United States Supreme Court case, the trial court found that police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant based on the 911 call. The court reasoned, possibly without supporting evidence, that the 911 call center in Philadelphia has caller ID and can track who made the call, thereby ensuring that calls to 911 are not actually anonymous. Because people know that they may be tracked when calling 911, the court reasoned, they have an incentive not to call in with fake accusations. Therefore, the court denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant was eventually convicted of all of the gun charges.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Breaking with decades of precedent, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s reasoning. It also inexplicably concluded that because the 911 call center has caller ID, people would never call in incorrect information to 911 in order to harass someone else. Obviously, this reasoning is absurd and completely ignores the fact that most school-age children possess the technological prowess to use a “burner” phone or mask their true phone number or caller ID with an app. It also erroneously assumes that everyone knows (and cares) that their cell phone number could be tracked by 911 if they make a call. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.

It is highly likely that this opinion will be appealed further. It is also important to note that the opinion relies entirely on federal law as the defendant in this case did not advance the argument that the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protections against stops based on anonymous tips than the United States Constitution. Whether such arguments will work in the future remains an open question. Finally, the tip in this case was extremely specific down to the make and model of the car, the defendant’s clothing, and the license plate of the vehicle. Nonetheless, this case substantially expands the power of the police to make stops based on anonymous radio calls. Such a power is extremely problematic because of the ease with which any citizen may mask his or her identity and call in an anonymous and false complaint against someone else to harass them. Normally, police are required to show that information was at least relatively trustworthy prior to acting on it. This opinion eliminates that requirement.

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense

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 in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, VUFA, Rape, and Attempted 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.

PA Superior Court: Police Reasonably Conducted Warrantless Search of Defendant's Home After Defendant Fired Assault Rifle in Back Yard and Acted Crazy

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coughlin, holding that police properly conducted a protective, warrantless sweep of Coughlin’s home following corroborated reports that he had fired an assault rifle multiple times in the home. The Superior Court found that the police conduct in this case involved the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless entry into a home.

The Facts of Coughlin 

In August 2015, Philadelphia Police responded to a radio call indicating that multiple gun shots had been fired in the back yard of a residence in a high-crime area. The police peered into the back yard while perched upon a wall and saw a white male, Coughlin, and numerous shell casings on the ground. They did not see a gun, but they secured the defendant and asked him if anyone was inside the house. He gave them inconsistent answers, so they performed a “protective sweep” of the home to make sure that no one had been injured. They found and seized an assault rifle on the second floor.

The police arrested Coughlin, and the District Attorney’s Office charged him with a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA Sec. 6106), possessing instruments of crime, and recklessly endangering another person. The VUFA charge was ultimately dismissed because VUFA 6106 requires either that a gun be concealed or located in a car and that the defendant not have a license. There is an exception to the VUFA 6106 statute which provides that a defendant may conceal a gun in his or her home. Here, the evidence showed that Coughlin lived in the house, so VUFA 6106 was not an appropriate charge. 

Following the dismissal of the VUFA 6106 charge, Coughlin filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the gun, which would help his case with respect to the possessing instruments of crime and recklessly endangering another person charges. The trial court granted the motion to suppress. It concluded that police searched the home solely because they wanted to find the gun; not because they were looking for injured people in the house. The court therefore found that police should have obtained a warrant prior to entering the house.

The Superior Court Appeal

The Commonwealth appealed the suppression of the gun to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court noted that in general, police may not search a house without a warrant. However, there are a number of exceptions to this general requirement. Although the warrantless entry and search of a home is presumptively unreasonable and illegal, there is an exigent circumstances requirement which may justify such a search. Exigent circumstances exist where the police reasonably believe that someone within a residence is in need of immediate aid. There are a number of factors which courts typically look at when determining whether exigent circumstances exist:

  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 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 (entry at night is disfavored).

These factors apply in the typical case, but in this case, the real inquiry was whether the police reasonably believed someone inside the residence was in need of immediate assistance.

The Emergency Aid Exception and the Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court ultimately concluded that police acted reasonably in entering the house. They did not need ironclad proof of a likely, serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception. Instead, they could err on the side of caution in this case given all of the circumstances. Here, the evidence showed that the defendant fired the gun multiple times in a neighborhood known for gun violence. The initial report suggested that he fired the gun in his back yard, but he also could have fired it in the home. When a witness flagged down the police, she told the police to be careful and described the defendant as acting crazy. Police corroborated the witness statement when they saw spent shells in the defendant’s backyard and by speaking with the defendant, who gave them inconsistent answers about whether anyone was inside. These inconsistent answers in particular suggested that maybe the defendant had a victim in the house who needed help. Therefore, under these circumstances, it was reasonably for police to confirm that he had not injured anyone by searching the house.

Ultimately, this case will likely be the subject of additional appeals as it conflicts with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Wilmer. For now, however, the case illustrates one of the rare circumstances in which police need not obtain a warrant prior to entering a residence. If police reasonably believe that someone inside may be in need of urgent assistance, then they may enter a house without a search warrant.

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

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 in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and Attempted 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. 

Third Circuit Court of Appeals: Unnecessary 23-minute Extension of Traffic Stop Requires Suppression of Gun and Marijuana 

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Lawyer

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Lawyer

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has decided the case of United States v. Clark, holding that police violated Clark’s rights by questioning him and the driver of the car he was in for 23 minutes about subjects unrelated to the initial purpose of a traffic stop. The Third Circuit held that the trial court properly granted Clark’s motion to suppress a gun and marijuana found in the car because police impermissibly extended the stop for longer than was necessary to investigate the motor vehicle code violations that led to the stop. 

The Facts of Clark

Clark is an excellent example of how police body camera footage dramatically changes the analysis of routine police searches and seizures. In Clark, police in New Jersey stopped a minivan because the driver was using his cell phone while driving, did not have his headlights on, and had an obstructed view. The police asked to see the paperwork for the vehicle. The driver handed over his license and insurance card, but he could not find the van’s registration. He said the van belonged to his mother, and he offered to call his mother and ask her if she knew where to find the registration. The officer told the driver that the stop was for the three traffic violations and asked whether his license was suspended. The driver said it was not. The officer then asked if the van belonged to the driver’s mother, and the driver confirmed that it did. 

After speaking with the driver, the officer returned to his police car to run the paperwork. He confirmed that the driver’s license was valid, that the driver had a criminal record for drug charges, there were no outstanding arrest warrants for the driver, and the car was registered to a woman with the same last name and address as the driver. The officer then went back to the van and asked the driver about his criminal record. He asked whether the driver had been arrested, for what he had been arrested, and when was the last time he had been arrested. The driver confirmed he had been arrested for drug charges, most recently in 2006. The officer continued questioning the driver as to such things as where he was coming from, whether he and any warrants, and again how many times he had been arrested. 

After questioning the driver for a few minutes, mostly about his criminal record, the officer asked the driver to step out of the vehicle. The driver did so, and the officer then began asking him about Clark, the passenger. After asking a few questions about Clark, the officer walked over to the passenger’s side of the van and asked similar questions of Clark. The officer then returned to the driver and accused him of lying. He then said he smelled marijuana coming from the passenger’s side and asked Clark to get out of the car. Clark complied. The officers told him to turn around for a pat-down, and Clark then told the officers that he had a gun. The officers searched Clark and recovered a gun and a small amount of marijuana. 

Body camera footage showed that police had questioned the two men for about 23 minutes. Had the footage not been recorded, officers likely would have been able to describe the questioning as a “brief encounter,” and Clark would have had much more difficulty establishing what happened that led to the search.

The Motion to Suppress 

After police arrested Clark, the United States Attorney’s Office adopted the case. A federal grand jury indicted Clark for possession of a weapon as a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1). He filed a motion to suppress the gun and the marijuana, arguing that police had impermissibly prolonged the stop beyond its original purpose without the necessary reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The District Court granted the motion to suppress, finding that police had no real basis for extensively questioning the driver about his criminal history and that the officer had no reasonable suspicion to investigate other criminal matters beyond the traffic violations. 

The Federal Appeal 

After the District Court granted the motion to suppress, the United States appealed to the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision on appeal. The Court noted that even when a stop may be lawful at its inception, as the parties agreed in this case, a stop may become illegal as it progresses. In Rodriguez v. United States, the United States Supreme Court recently held that an initially-valid traffic stop may become unlawful when it lasts longer than is necessary for police to complete the mission of the stop. The authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the mission are or reasonably should have been completed. In order to prolong a stop beyond that point, a police officer must have acquired additional reasonable suspicion or probable cause during the investigation to justify additional investigation and a lengthening of the stop. 

When police pull a suspect over for a traffic stop, the mission of the stop is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and address related safety concerns. This could include deciding whether to issue a ticket, checking the driver’s license and for any outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and insurance. These tasks are all part of ensuring roadway safety. Police may also take steps that are reasonably related to officer safety. However, not all investigation during a traffic stop qualifies as part of the traffic stop’s mission. For example, extensive questioning of the occupants of a vehicle, as occurred here, requires independent reasonable suspicion beyond the observation of a motor vehicle code violation. 

Here, the extensive questioning of the driver regarding his criminal record and where he was coming from had nothing to do with the purpose of the stop. The questions were entirely unrelated to whether he had a driver’s license, insurance, and registration, and they had nothing to do with whether he was lawfully in possession of the car. The driver was cooperative with the officers, he provided proof of insurance and a valid driver’s license, he did not have any outstanding arrest warrants, and the police were able to confirm that the car belonged to the driver’s mother. Accordingly, the police had no basis for believing that the driver should not have been driving the car. Once police confirmed that all of the paperwork for the car was valid, they were required to either issue a ticket or let the car go. They had no authority to then turn to Clark, the passenger, and question him. By doing so, they unconstitutionally extended the length of the stop. Therefore, the District Court properly granted the motion to suppress the gun and the marijuana. This is a great case for individual privacy rights as the Third Circuit has now held that even a relatively short 23-minute stop can violate a defendant’s rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal-Defense-Lawyer.jpg

If you are facing criminal charges or are 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 in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and Attempted 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. 

PA Superior Court: If you travel from your house to sell drugs to a CI, the police can get a warrant for your house.

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Kemp, finding that the police properly obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s house where police had twice seen the defendant travel from his house directly to a location where he engaged in drug transactions with a confidential informant. The court further held that police had the authority necessary to frisk the defendant when they executed the search warrant because when they arrived, he was nervous, made quick movements, dropped a bag, and backed away from them.

The Facts of Kemp

Kemp centered around whether the police properly obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s home. In their investigation, the police spoke with a confidential informant who they had previously used. The CI told them that he had purchased marijuana from the defendant multiple times over the past couple of years. The CI provided the officers with the defendant’s cell phone number and told them that he usually sells vehicle from a Jeep Cherokee or white Cadillac DTS. The CI also told police that the defendant was a SEPTA bus driver and that he had purchased marijuana from him within the past six months.

After receiving this information, the police investigated the cell phone number that the CI had provided and determined that it was registered to the defendant. Police also knew the defendant’s address from prior contacts. They also knew that he was in fact a SEPTA driver because a police report had been made on a previous occasion when the defendant had been involved in a car accident while driving a bus.

In March 2015, the police met up with the CI to engage in controlled buys of marijuana. The officer had the CI call the defendant and place an order for marijuana. The defendant agreed to sell the CI marijuana and set a location for the sale. At the same time, other officers monitored the defendant’s home. Officers observed the defendant leave his home, enter a white Cadillac DTS, and drive directly to the proposed location without making any stops. They then watched him meet with the CI and sell marijuana to the CI. The CI then returned to the officers and provided them with the marijuana. The CI confirmed that he had just purchased the marijuana from the defendant. 48 hours later, the police used the same procedures to have the CI make a second marijuana purchase. Again, the defendant traveled directly from his house to the sale location without making any stops.

The officers then obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s house. When they arrived to execute the warrant, they saw the defendant exiting the house while carrying a black plastic bag. One of the officers exited his vehicle, identified himself as a police officer, and told the defendant that he had a search warrant for the house. The defendant put the bag on the ground and began to back away. The police then handcuffed him, frisked him, and recovered a gun. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that he knew that the defendant owned multiple guns and had a license to carry a concealed firearm. Accordingly, the frisk was for his own safety. After finding the gun, police told the defendant that they were going to search the house. They asked where the defendant’s dogs were, and the defendant then accompanied them into the house. While they were approaching the house, the defendant again began to pull away. Officers then conducted a second search of the defendant and found marijuana in his socks.

The Motion to Suppress the Drugs

The defendant moved to suppress the gun and the marijuana recovered from his socks. He argued that there was no probable cause for the police to search his house and therefore the search warrant was defective. The defendant’s argument focused on the fact that the CI never told the police that he had seen marijuana in the defendant’s house and that the police never saw any drug transactions in or near the house. The defendant also challenged the frisk that police conducted when they arrived at the house to execute the warrant, arguing that they did not have the authority to search him outside of his house. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The defendant was convicted of Possession with the Intent to Deliver and sentenced to a county jail sentence. Although the defendant had no prior record and the guidelines should have called for probation, the trial court used a sentencing guideline enhancement for selling drugs in a school zone and therefore imposed a jail sentence.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant challenged the denial of the motion to suppress as well as the sentencing guidelines used in sentencing him. The Superior Court affirmed the decision of the trial court to deny the motion to suppress. It found that the police had properly established probable cause for the search of the defendant’s home because the defendant had traveled directly from the home to the location of the drug sales on two occasions without stopping anywhere along the way. Therefore, the police had sufficient reason to believe that the defendant was storing the marijuana in his house. Had he stopped somewhere before making the sales, there may not have been probable cause for the house. But because he traveled directly to the controlled buys, the warrant was not lacking in probable cause.

The Superior Court also upheld the frisk of the defendant. It recognized that when police are executing a valid search warrant, they have the authority to detain people on the promises as well as those who have recently exited and are outside the premises. Police may also engage in a frisk when they have reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous. Here, the police were justified in detaining the defendant because they had a search warrant and he had just exited the home. They were also permitted to frisk him because he appeared uneasy, dropped a bag, and backed away from the officers. The officers also knew that the defendant owned multiple guns and had a concealed carry permit. Therefore, they had reasonable suspicion that the defendant could be armed. They were also justified in the second, more intrusive search of the defendant's socks because the defendant had in fact been armed and because they had watched him sell drugs to a CI twice. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

At the same time, the court vacated the defendant’s sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing. Based on the defendant’s prior record score of zero and the low offense gravity score for selling marijuana in the quantity involved, the sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of Restorative Sanctions (probation) to nine months plus or minus three months. However, the Commonwealth had argued for but failed to sufficiently prove that the sales took place within a school zone. Had the Commonwealth proven that the sales took place in a school zone, it would have made the defendant’s sentencing guidelines 12 – 30 months. But because the Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence, the defendant was sentenced under the wrong guidelines and was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or believe you may be under investigation by the police, we can help. Our experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys have successfully defended thousands of clients. We are award-winning criminal lawyers who will fight for you in jurisdictions throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won countless cases involving drug charges, gun charges, and other allegations of serious criminal wrongdoing. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a defense attorney today.