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Commonwealth v. Jones

February 16, 2010


Appeal from the Opinion and Order of the Superior Court dated June 14, 2007, 928 A.2d 1054 (Pa.Super. 2007), 2874 EDA. 2005, vacating the judgment of sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County entered September 7, 2005 at No. 1758-02 CR-162-02 and remanding for further proceedings

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice McCAFFERY


ARGUED: October 22, 2008


The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the order of the Superior Court vacating Curtis Jones's judgment of sentence for first-degree murder and robbery. The Superior Court concluded that the search warrant issued during the investigation of the murder and robbery was invalid and that evidence seized pursuant to that warrant should have been suppressed. We reverse, concluding that the Superior Court erred by not upholding the validity of a search warrant supported by probable cause.

In the early hours of April 15, 2002, Chester City police officers responded to reports of gunfire occurring on the campus of Widener University. The investigating officers spoke to a witness who stated that he had heard five gunshots and then saw, from his bedroom window, a tall individual running from the area. The witness provided a description of the fleeing individual that was later determined to match that of Jones. The police soon thereafter located the victim's dead body lying in a pool of blood, riddled with five gunshot wounds. Shortly after the body's discovery, and based on a set of keys found on the body that suggested the victim may have been a student at the university, university personnel provided a photograph to police that appeared to identify the victim as Abdul Sesay, a 20-year-old student. No other identity materials were found on the body. At the time of his death, Sesay was rooming with fellow student Curtis Jones in a university dormitory "blocks away from" the crime scene. Commonwealth v. Jones, 928 A.2d 1054, 1060 (Pa.Super. 2007).

At approximately 11:00 a.m. that same morning, police interviewed Jones, at which time he provided them with a version of the events of the previous evening. Jones told police that Sesay had left their dormitory room (and the company of their friends who had gathered in the room) after receiving a call on his cellular telephone. Jones told police that at the time, Sesay stated that he would be back, but he did not return.

In the early afternoon of the same day, a magisterial district judge issued a search warrant for Sesay's and Jones's dormitory room. The affidavit of probable cause stated as follows:

On 2/19/2001*fn1 Officer Gizzi responded to the area of the 100[0] blk of East 18th St. for a call of shots fired. Upon arrival the officer was advised by witnesses that the shots were coming from the end of the street[.] Officer Gizzi then went to the end of the [s]treet and discovered a B/M wearing a black shirt and black jeans shorts laying [sic] on his back in a pool of blood with what appeared to be gunshot wounds to the head[.]

[T]he victim was unresponsive and not breathing. Paramedics [pro]nounced the victim deceased at 0216 [h]rs.

Det. Hampel discovered keys on the victim[']s body that belonged to Widener University[.] Upon checking with Widener Security it was found that the victim may have been a [W]idener student[.] [A] picture was given to police by Widener Security and was compared to the victim that was discovered on the 1000 blk of East 18th Street, and found [sic] that the victim and the picture provided to police were identical.

With the information provided[, p]olice believe that the victim is Abdul Sesay[,] B/M/20[,] who resides [sic] Widener University Campus at [T]hayer Hall Room # 306[.]

Id. at 1059. The application for the search warrant sought "Any evidence that provides Identification/Cellular Phones, Pagers, Drugs, Drug Paraphanalia [sic], handguns, bullets." Id.

The search warrant was executed that afternoon, while Jones was away on a shopping trip with friends in New Jersey with a cache of newly found money. Seized from the dormitory room were items that the Commonwealth asserted were observed by the police in plain view. These items were the victim's cellular telephone, which was observed to have blood on it (the blood was later determined to match that of the victim); a cellular telephone box and sales paperwork concerning this telephone in the victim's name; a Glock handgun users' manual; white t-shirts, one of which, ultimately determined to belong to Jones, contained a bloodstain on it (the blood was later determined to match that of the victim); other clothing, including shorts owned or worn by Jones but exhibiting blood later determined to be that of the victim; and three damp wash cloths. The suspicions of the police were aroused when they found the victim's cellular telephone because Jones had previously told them that the victim had taken it with him on the evening of the murder.

The police interviewed Jones once again the next day, at which time Jones changed his story. In this second interview, Jones asserted that after Sesay received the cellular telephone call, Sesay placed a gun that he owned in his waistband and then asked Jones to accompany him as he went to meet the caller. Jones further stated that when the two neared the scene of the eventual shooting, Sesay instructed Jones to hide behind a bush in case the person they were to meet caused trouble. Sesay purportedly told Jones that in the event of trouble, Jones was to jump from behind the bush to distract the third party so that Sesay would have a better opportunity to shoot this person. Jones then stated that a truck pulled up driven by a black male and carrying a white female passenger; and, after an exchange of words between Sesay and the third-party male, gunfire erupted. The truck then abruptly drove away. Jones stated that he observed Sesay lying critically wounded on the ground. Jones then told police that he grabbed Sesay's cellular telephone and ran back to the dormitory room. At the end of the interview, Jones gave the police permission to search the dormitory room.

After this interview, Jones volunteered to go to the police criminal investigation unit to take a polygraph test. Jones was given his Miranda warnings*fn2 at that time, and he signed a form acknowledging his receipt and understanding of these warnings. During the interview that followed, Jones initially reverted to his first story that he had given the police, but shortly thereafter returned to his second version of events (that involving the purported gunfight with the truck driver) with additional embellishments.

A police diver subsequently recovered the murder weapon from a lake located behind the house of Jones's mother in New Jersey after police received an anonymous tip.*fn3

Jones's friends, who had accompanied him on his post-murder shopping trip, told police that on the day after the shooting, and prior to going to stores, they had accompanied Jones to his mother's house. There, his friends observed that Jones went behind the house for a lengthy period. Having obtained statements from Jones and other witnesses, and having recovered the murder weapon, the police arrested Jones for the murder and robbery of Abdul Sesay.

Arguing violations of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the United States Constitution, Jones filed pre-trial motions to suppress his statements made to the police and the evidence seized pursuant to the search warrant issued on April 15th.*fn4 Following a hearing, the suppression court denied the motions. In explaining its determination to deny Jones's motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to the search warrant, the trial court stated, without further analysis, that under "the totality of the circumstances and using a common sense approach," the affidavit of probable cause supporting the search warrant established that the police had probable cause to search the dorm room. Trial Court Opinion, dated June 6, 2006, at 25. The court also determined that even if the search warrant were found to be invalid, items seized pursuant to the warrant should not be suppressed because (1) Jones gave his permission to the police to search the room; and (2) the police would have inevitably discovered the evidence as part of their investigation. Jones was ultimately convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, with a consecutive sentence of 66 to 132 months' imprisonment for robbery.

On direct appeal, the Superior Court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded the matter for further proceedings after determining that the suppression court had erred by failing to suppress the evidence seized pursuant to the search warrant, which the Superior Court determined was not supported by probable cause.*fn5 The court held:

As [Jones] points out, the affidavit contains no explanation as to why police would expect to find the evidence listed in the warrant in the victim's dormitory room. Nothing in the affidavit states that the victim's death was drug-related, yet some of the evidence sought clearly is so related. Because the affidavit gives no indication that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in the victim's dorm room blocks away from the crime scene, it is not supported by probable cause.

Moreover, although identification evidence belonging to Abdul Sesay would arguably logically be found in his room, it is clear from the warrant that police had already identified the victim as Abdul Sesay[;] thus, there was no reason to search for additional identification evidence, [and] certainly there was no stated reason. As such, there is no probable cause to support the issuance of the search warrant for identification purposes.

For these reasons, the issuing authority had no basis upon which to authorize the search of [Jones's] and the victim's dorm room and the lower court erred in determining that the warrant was supported by probable cause and failing to suppress the evidence seized from the room.

Jones, supra at 1059-60. Aside from citing general principles of law regarding an appellate court's review of the suppression court's determination that a search warrant was valid, the Superior Court cited no case law specific to its conclusions.*fn6

We granted the Commonwealth's petition for allowance of appeal and directed the parties to address the following issue: Whether the Superior Court erred by concluding that probable cause did not support the issuance of the search warrant of a murder victim's residence for investigatory purposes.

Our standard of review in addressing a challenge to the denial of a suppression motion is limited to determining whether the suppression court's factual findings are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct. Because the Commonwealth prevailed before the suppression court, we may consider only the evidence of the Commonwealth and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole. Where the suppression court's factual findings are supported by the record, we are bound by these findings and may reverse only if the court's legal conclusions are erroneous. Commonwealth v. Bomar, 826 A.2d 831, 842 (Pa. 2003). Where, as here, the appeal of the determination of the suppression court turns on allegations of legal error, the suppression court's legal conclusions 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. Mistler, 912 A.2d 1265, 1269 (Pa. 2006) (quoting Commonwealth v. Nester, 709 A.2d 879, 881 (Pa. 1998)). Thus, the conclusions of law of the courts below are subject to our plenary review. Mistler, supra; Commonwealth v. Morley, 681 A.2d 1254, 1256 n.2 (Pa. 1996).

Before the suppression court, Jones challenged the legality of the search warrant under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, arguing only that the warrant was not supported by probable cause. Thus, Jones's challenge has root in Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania ...

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