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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Jason Holmes

February 22, 2011

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
v.
JASON HOLMES, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court dated April 17, 2009 at No. 2069 MDA 2007, reversing the judgment of sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, Criminal Division, dated November 29, 2007 at No. 4996 of 2006, and remanding for a new trial

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Todd

[J-68-2010]

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

SUBMITTED: July 14, 2010

OPINION

In this appeal by allowance, we consider whether the police articulated reasonable suspicion of a violation of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4524(c), relating to windshield obstructions, to support a traffic stop of the vehicle driven by Appellee Jason Holmes. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude the Superior Court properly found the evidence did not support the suppression court's finding of reasonable suspicion, and, as a result, that the traffic stop of the vehicle driven by Holmes was illegal. Accordingly, we affirm the Superior Court's order vacating Holmes' judgment of sentence and remanding for a new trial.

The record reveals the following factual background. On the evening of December 6, 2006, Assistant Chief Leonard Trotta*fn1 of the Pittston Township Police Department was on general patrol and sitting in his marked police vehicle, parked at the Sunoco gas station on Route 315.*fn2 According to his testimony at Holmes' suppression hearing, Officer Trotta observed a black vehicle, at approximately 9:00 p.m., "traveling north on 315 with objects hanging from the rearview mirror which were obstructing the driver's view." N.T. Suppression Hearing, 9/4/08, at 4.*fn3 Officer Trotta testified that, suspecting a violation of Section 4524(c) of the Motor Vehicle Code, which prohibits an individual from, inter alia, driving a vehicle with any object hung from the rearview mirror that would materially impair the driver's vision through the front windshield, he "pulled out onto 315, activated [his] emergency lights, the vehicle proceeded to the entrance ramp of route -- of the Turnpike. I hit my siren once. The vehicle pulled over." Id.*fn4 After requesting back up, Officer Trotta approached the driver's side of the vehicle and asked Holmes for his operator's license, proof of insurance, and proof of vehicle ownership. Another individual, Sinard Ballard, was in the passenger seat of the vehicle. Holmes provided his name, but indicated that his license was suspended and that he had no proof of ownership. Officer Trotta testified Holmes "was nervous, jittery, moving his hands back and forth and his right hand kept on going from the console onto the steering wheel and back onto the console." Id. at 5. The officer testified he asked Holmes to exit the vehicle, at which time the officer observed "a bulge in [Holmes'] back pocket," which the officer thought "possibly could be some type of a weapon," such as a "knife, pocket knife, a folding knife." Id. at 6. By that time, Officer Robert Evans of the Hughestown Police Department had arrived with his police dog. Officer Trotta testified he conducted a pat down of Holmes for safety purposes, and that he attempted to remove the "bulging" object from Holmes' pocket, at which time he discovered that the object was a bundle of $335 in cash. Id.*fn5

Officer Trotta further testified he asked Holmes if he would consent to a search of the vehicle, advising him that if he did not consent, the officers had probable cause and could get a search warrant. According to Officer Trotta, Holmes gave verbal consent to search the vehicle, after which Officer Evans had the dog perform a canine sniff of the exterior of vehicle. Holmes testified at the suppression hearing that he did not consent to a search of the vehicle. Id. at 9, 42.*fn6

Officer Evans also testified at the suppression hearing, explaining that, when he arrived at the scene in response to Officer Trotta's call for assistance, he observed Officer Trotta and Holmes outside of the vehicle. Id. at 24. Officer Evans testified he observed Officer Trotta ask Holmes for consent to search the vehicle, and Holmes gave consent, although when asked at the suppression hearing to point out the driver who gave consent,

Officer Evans pointed to Ballard, who was the passenger in the vehicle. Id. at 24-25. Officer Evans indicated that, after Officer Trotta received consent to search the vehicle from Holmes, Officer Evans had the dog perform a sniff of the perimeter of the vehicle, and that the dog "alerted" to the presence of drugs on the driver and passenger side doors. Officer Evans testified that, after the dog alerted during the exterior sniff, Ballard was removed from the passenger seat of the vehicle.*fn7

Officer Evans testified that he "asked for consent again for my own knowledge and put the dog inside the vehicle." Id. at 26.*fn8 Ballard testified at the suppression hearing that he did not give anyone consent to search the vehicle. Id. at 44. After Ballard was removed from the vehicle, Officer Trotta conducted a pat down of Ballard, removing $3,000 from his person.

According to Officer Evans, once inside the vehicle, the dog alerted in the area of the floor and the backseat, where police found marijuana. Officer Evans testified that, after removing the dog from the inside of the vehicle, he overheard a conversation between Holmes and Ballard, suggesting that the dog would not be able to detect cocaine. Id. at 28. Officer Evans put the dog back inside the vehicle, where the dog alerted to the console area between the driver and front passenger seats, in which police ultimately recovered marijuana cigarettes, packets of cocaine, a digital scale, and a semiautomatic handgun and a magazine for the handgun. Id. at 29-30. Officer Evans testified that the items were seized and given to Officer Trotta. Id. at 31. After Holmes was transported to the police station, Officer Evans discovered several additional packets of cocaine in Holmes' sock. When asked at the suppression hearing if he seized the object which he observed hanging from the vehicle, Officer Trotta replied "I don't recall. I don't think so, sir." Id. at 19. Officer Evans also testified that he did not seize the object hanging from the rearview mirror. Id. at 40.

Holmes was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance ("PWID")*fn9 and several weapons offenses,*fn10 as well as the summary offense of driving with a suspended license.*fn11 He was not charged with or issued a warning for violating Section 4524(c) relating to windshield obstructions. Prior to trial, Holmes filed a motion to suppress the evidence recovered from the vehicle on the basis that the stop of his vehicle was illegal, in that Officer Trotta did not have reasonable suspicion to suspect a violation of Section 4524(c). Following a hearing on September 4, 2007, before former Judge Michael T. Conahan, the court denied Holmes' motion to suppress. On September 6, 2007, Holmes proceeded to a bench trial before Judge Conahan, wherein he was convicted of the aforementioned charges and was sentenced to 5-to-10 years in prison.

Holmes appealed his judgment of sentence to the Superior Court, and, on April 17, 2009, the Superior Court, in an unpublished memorandum opinion, vacated Holmes' judgment of sentence and remanded for a new trial. Commonwealth v. Holmes, 2069 MDA 2007 (Pa. Super. filed April 17, 2009). In doing so, the Superior Court relied on its decisions in Commonwealth v. Felty, 662 A.2d 1102 (Pa. Super. 1995), and Commonwealth v. Benton, 655 A.2d 1030 (Pa. Super. 1995). In each of those cases, the Superior Court held that the traffic stop of the appellant's vehicle was unlawful because the police officer who stopped the vehicle for an alleged violation of Section 4524(c) did not possess reasonable and articulable grounds to believe that a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code had occurred. In the instant case, the Superior Court concluded, "the case is even stronger to disallow the stop because not only was there no description of the size of the object, but there was no testimony as to what the object was." Holmes, 2069 MDA 2007, at 2. As a result, the Superior Court held that the stop of Holmes' vehicle was unlawful. Judge Stevens filed a dissenting statement, wherein he opined that "[Officer Trotta] articulated sufficiently specific facts from which it can be determined he had reasonable suspicion to believe [Holmes] had violated 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4524(c) prior to the time he effectuated the stop." Holmes, 2069 MDA 2007, Dissenting Statement at 5. Specifically, Judge Stevens noted "[Officer Trotta] testified on direct examination at the suppression hearing, and the trial court found his statements credible, that while parked in the Sunoco gas station, he observed [Holmes'] vehicle traveling on Route 315 with objects hanging from the rearview mirror that obstructed the driver's view. He considered these objects a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code, and this violation was the basis for his stop." Id.

The Commonwealth filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and, on April 8, 2010, this Court granted the Commonwealth's petition with respect to the following issue:

Whether the Superior Court erred in reversing [Holmes'] judgment of sentence, based on a misapplication of the relevant precedent permitting stops of motor vehicles for an alleged violation of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4524(c) (windshield obstructions and wipers)?

Commonwealth v. Holmes, 992 A.2d 845 (Pa. 2010) (order).

The issue of what quantum of cause a police officer must possess in order to conduct a vehicle stop based on a possible violation of the Motor Vehicle Code is a question of law, over which our scope of review is plenary and our standard of review is de novo. Commonwealth v. Chase, 599 Pa. 80, 88, 960 A.2d 108, 112 (2008). However, in determining whether the suppression court properly denied a suppression motion, we consider whether the record supports the court's factual findings. If so, we are bound by those facts and may reverse only if the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are in error. Commonwealth v. Hernandez, 594 Pa. 319, 328, 935 A.2d 1275, 1280 (2007).

Pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308(b), Whenever a police officer is engaged in a systematic program of checking vehicles or drivers or has reasonable suspicion that a violation of this title is occurring or has occurred, he may stop a vehicle, upon request or signal, for the purpose of checking the vehicle's registration, proof of financial responsibility, vehicle identification number or engine number or the driver's license, or to secure such other information as the officer may reasonably believe to be necessary to enforce the provisions of this title.

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308(b).*fn12

Section 4524(c) of the Motor Vehicle ...


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