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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Brian Simpkins

January 20, 2012


Appeal from the Order of August 25, 2010, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, at No: CP-51-CR-0007933-2010.

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




This Commonwealth appeal is from the August 25, 2010 order suppressing a gun discovered in a room rented by Appellee, Brian Simpkins,*fn1 in a single-family dwelling. We reverse and remand. On appeal from an order suppressing evidence, we "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." Commonwealth v. Baez, 21

A.3d 1280, 1282 (Pa.Super. 2011). On the other hand, the conclusions of law reached by the suppression court "are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty is to determine if the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts." Id.

In the present case, the defense presented no evidence or witnesses. We therefore examine the proof adduced by the Commonwealth to determine if the record supports the factual findings rendered by the suppression court herein. Philadelphia Police Detective William Knecht was involved in the investigation of guns stolen during a burglary at a gun store in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He secured a search warrant for 4513 N. 13th Street, Philadelphia, based upon the following information. On February 24, 2010, Philadelphia police arrested Bradley Robinette, who was in possession of several of the guns stolen during the burglary. Robinette told police that he had purchased the guns from the person who committed the burglary and that he had sold other stolen weapons in the Philadelphia area. Robinette specified that he sold at least two of the stolen firearms to a man he knew by the initial "P" who lived at a house located at 4513 N. 13th Street. Police took Robinette to the address, where he confirmed that he sold stolen guns at that location and also stated that he was familiar with the house because he previously purchased marijuana there. Detective Knecht conducted a computerized search of records pertaining to the property and discovered that it was zoned as a single-family row house owned by Advanced Real Estate. The search warrant therefore identified the place to be searched as a single-family house located at 4513 N. 13th Street.

Detective Knecht testified as follows regarding the events surrounding execution of the warrant on February 26, 2010. There was one door to the residence, and there may have been a doorbell but it was not operational because the officer knocked on the door. Detective Knecht continued that he did not recall any mailboxes being on the property, and there was one utility meter at the rear. From the outside, the property appeared to be a single-family dwelling. N.T. Trial (Jury) Vol. 1, 8/25/10, at 17.

A female answered the door and allowed Detective Knecht and other officers who were assisting him into the house. The interior was not divided into apartment units. Specifically, the first floor contained a vestibule, dining room, living room, and kitchen. In the vestibule, stairs led to the second floor, which contained three bedrooms and a bathroom. No door separated the first and second floor. Id. at 18.

While other officers were involved in examining other parts of the building, Detective Knecht searched the middle bedroom on the second floor, where he discovered a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun.

Detective Knecht also found Appellee's driver's license and "a couple of pieces of mail in the name of [Appellee]." Id. at 30. The serial number from the gun established that it was stolen from the gun store in Ephrata.

Detective Knecht indicated that, following the search, he conducted an informal interview of the unidentified female who opened the door. She told the officer that she "used to live in the property there by herself," and that she rented it from another male. Id. at 24. The woman said that two other people had recently moved into the home, were paying rent, and used two bedrooms on the second floor. Detective Knecht later confirmed with the owner of the house that the row house had been rented to one woman until just prior to the search, when the landlord had permitted two men, including Appellee, to rent bedrooms on the second floor.

Detective Knecht was questioned at the hearing as to when he interrogated the female occupant of the row house. He stated unequivocally that the interrogation did not occur when she opened the door, but only after the search was conducted. Detective Knecht noted that he first came in contact with the woman when she opened the door and permitted police into the residence. He was asked: "At that point did you conduct an informal discussion with her about who was residing on the property?" Id. at 25. The witness responded, "No we did not." Id. Officer Knecht explained, "I did not talk to her until after the search was done." Id. at 26. During the discussion with the female, he showed her Appellee's driver's license, and she identified him as the man who rented the room where the gun was recovered.

Based on this proof, the suppression court inexplicably concluded that the row house was divided into apartments. It stated: "In the present case, police officers were in the process of executing a valid warrant for a single family house. When they arrived at the scene, they learned that this house, though zoned single family, was actually a rental home divided into several apartments." Trial Court Opinion, 5/31/11, at 5. Despite the fact that Detective Knecht clearly delineated that he interviewed the woman after the search, the suppression court also concluded: "When Detective Knecht entered the house, a woman came up to him and explained that she rented a room in the house, and that three men also rented rooms." Id. After noting that the warrant "did not specify any specific apartment within the house to be searched," id. at 3, the suppression court concluded that the search was infirm under our decision in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 323 A.2d 26 (Pa.Super. 1974). In Johnson, we noted that "both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions prohibited the issuance ...

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