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Commonwealth v. Johnson

March 11, 2009


Appeal from the Order entered November 1, 2006 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal No. CP-51-CR-1107921-2005.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fitzgerald, J.



¶ 1 The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appeals from the order entered in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, granting the motion to suppress filed by Appellee, Hakim Johnson. We find that the need to identify an unconscious victim, in order to facilitate investigation of the attack, can be an exigent circumstance justifying a warrantless search of the victim's clothing. We specifically hold that the instant, warrantless search was justified when the police had no reason to believe that Appellee had committed a crime. As a result, we conclude that the suppression court erred as a matter of law in relying on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decisions in Commonwealth v. Silo, 509 Pa. 406, 502 A.2d 173 (1985) (Silo II), and Commonwealth v. Silo, 480 Pa. 15, 389 A.2d 62 (1978) (Silo I), because the facts of those cases are distinguishable from the instant facts. Accordingly, we reverse the order suppressing the contraband inadvertently found in Appellee's discarded clothing.

¶ 2 On November 22, 2004, police officers responded to a radio call of a shooting in Philadelphia. The shooting victim, Appellee, was already en route to Temple University Hospital. A police officer testified at the suppression hearing that it was standard practice in the police department to make efforts to identify an unidentified shooting victim coming to the hospital. N.T., 9/14/06, at 8. No one in the hospital was able to identify the victim. Id. at 6. The nurses asked the police officers if they knew the victim's identity, which they did not. Id. Another officer testified that they decided to go through Appellee's clothing in an attempt to identify him. Id. at 15. Police retrieved what initially appeared to be a wallet from the front pocket of Appellee's pants. Id. However, the item turned out to be a large, clear, plastic bag containing three small, plastic bags with a white, chunky substance believed to be crack cocaine. Id. at 7. A further search of Appellee's clothes revealed a large bottle containing an orange liquid, a small bottle with one orange substance, and a small prescription bottle of Xanex with an address that was different from Appellee's. Police also recovered $302 in cash. Ultimately, Appellee's identification was found in his back pocket. Id. at 7-8. Appellee was arrested and charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver*fn2 and Knowing and Intentional Possession of a Controlled Substance.*fn3 Appellee filed a motion to suppress, which was granted on November 1, 2006. The trial was suspended pending the Commonwealth's appeal.

¶ 3 The Commonwealth raises one issue on appeal:

Where [Appellee] was shot in the mouth by an assailant and was unconscious, and hospital personnel had removed his clothing in the course of treating him, did police violate his constitutional rights by looking for identification in the front pocket of his discarded pants?

Commonwealth's Brief at 4.*fn4

¶ 4 Our standard of review of the suppression order is as follows:

When the Commonwealth appeals from a suppression order, we follow a clearly defined standard of review and consider only the evidence from the defendant's witnesses together with the evidence of the prosecution that, when read in the context of the entire record, remains uncontradicted. The suppression court's findings of fact bind an appellate court if the record supports those findings. The suppression court's conclusions of law, however, are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty it is to determine if the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts.

Commonwealth v. Nester, 551 Pa. 157, 160, 709 A.2d 879, 880-81 (1998) (citation omitted). Such conclusions of law are subject to plenary review. See Commonwealth v. Duncan, 572 Pa. 438, 445, 817 A.2d 455, 459 (Pa. Super. 2003).

¶ 5 The suppression court rejected the Commonwealth's argument that the police were "duty-bound" to investigate since they believed Appellee to be the victim of a crime. The court found that since Appellee was already receiving aid in the hospital when the police arrived, no exigent circumstances existed for the warrantless search of his clothes. Suppression Ct. Op. at 8. The court opined as follows:

Therefore, just as in Silo II [Commonwealth v. Silo, 509 Pa. 406, 502 A.2d 173 (1985)],*fn5 the police needed a separate warrant authorizing the search of the hospitalized individual's clothing, since no exigent circumstances existed to justify the warrantless search, as the patient's clothing was already under control of either hospital personnel ...

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