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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Joseph Carl Miller

November 7, 2012


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence November 16, 2011 In the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-15-CR-0003335-2010

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




This is an appeal from the judgment of sentence entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County following Appellant's conviction by a jury on the charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance (DUI), 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(a)(1), careless driving, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3714(a), reckless driving, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3736(a), accidental damage to unattended vehicle or property, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3745(a), and duties at a stop sign, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3323(b). Appellant's sole contention is the lower court erred in denying his motion to suppress three beer bottles, which the police seized without a warrant after entering his Chevrolet Blazer. We affirm.

The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows: Appellant was arrested and, on February 25, 2011, he filed a counseled omnibus pre-trial suppression motion. On July 25, 2011, Appellant proceeded to a suppression hearing at which Oxford Borough Police Officer Brian Dever was the sole testifying witness. Specifically, Officer Dever, an eleven-year veteran of the police department, testified that, on March 19, 2010, at approximately 8:24 p.m., he was on routine patrol travelling southbound on 5th Street when he observed a Chevrolet Blazer make a right-hand turn onto the northbound lane of 5th Street. N.T. 7/25/11 at 18-19. Specifically, he observed the following:

The vehicle made a wide turn crossing into my lane of travel. The vehicle attempted to adjust and made a hard right turn back into the northbound lane, almost striking a vehicle. Again, correcting that turn, he turned back into my l[a]ne of travel then again turned hard right striking the parked vehicle,...[which suffered] [m]inor damage to the driver side mirror and door.

N.T. 7/25/11 at 19.

As the Chevrolet Blazer hit the parked vehicle, a piece of the Chevrolet Blazer's side mirror "flew into the air and into [the officer's] lane of travel."

N.T. 7/25/11 at 20. Despite the fact the Chevrolet Blazer had just struck a parked vehicle, the Chevrolet Blazer continued driving northbound and, as Officer Dever approached from the opposite direction in his police vehicle, he made eye contact with the driver. N.T. 7/25/11 at 20. Officer Dever made a U-turn, activated his police cruiser's lights, and within half a block, caught up to the Chevrolet Blazer. N.T. 7/25/11 at 20. The Chevrolet Blazer continued travelling northbound on 5th Street and, when the vehicle came to a stop sign at the intersection of Market and 5th Streets, the Chevrolet Blazer went through the stop sign without stopping. N.T. 7/25/11 at 21. In response, Officer Dever activated his cruiser's audible siren; however, the Chevrolet Blazer did not stop. N.T. 7/25/11 at 21-22. Instead, the Chevrolet Blazer turned left onto Railroad Alley, made a left into a driveway located at the rear of 437 and 439 Market Street, which is Section 8 housing, and then came to a stop. N.T. 7/25/11 at 22-23.

As the driver of the Chevrolet Blazer began to exit the vehicle, Officer Dever quickly approached and ordered the driver, who was later identified as Appellant, to remain inside of the vehicle. N.T. 7/25/11 at 22-23. Upon initial contact with Appellant, Officer Dever detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from Appellant's breath, his eyes were blood shot, and his speech was slow and slurred. N.T. 7/25/11 at 23. As Officer Dever stood by the driver's side door, he was able to view the inside of the Chevrolet Blazer, which was illuminated by surrounding outside lights. N.T. 7/25/11 at 26-27. Sitting in the front console's cup holder, Officer Dever observed in clear view an unopened Heineken beer bottle. N.T. 7/25/11 at 27. Officer Dever testified that, in his experience, Heineken is an alcoholic beverage, and he recognized the bottle as being a Heineken beer bottle based on its green coloring, as well as the cap. N.T. 7/25/11 at 28.

Officer Dever asked Appellant for his license, registration, and insurance card. Appellant provided Officer Dever with a Pennsylvania identification card and valid registration card; however, he did not have in his possession a driver's license or a valid car insurance card. N.T. 7/25/11 at 24. Officer Dever requested that Appellant step out of the Chevrolet Blazer for a field sobriety test and, as Appellant did so, he "staggered, almost fell. He had to lean on the car. [Officer Dever's] partner grabbed a hold of him." N.T. 7/25/11 at 24.

Concluding it was not safe for Appellant to attempt to perform field sobriety tests, and Appellant was under the influence to an extent rendering him incapable of safe driving, Officer Dever placed Appellant under arrest for suspicion of DUI. N.T. 7/25/11 at 25. Officer Dever searched Appellant's person incident to the arrest and discovered a pill bottle, which had labeling indicating the pills were Oxycodone prescribed for Appellant. N.T. 7/25/11 at 30-31. There were pills inside of the bottle. N.T. 7/25/11 at 31. Officer Dever asked Appellant if he took any of the pills, and Appellant replied that "he took maybe one or two." N.T. 7/25/11 at 31. At this time, Officer Dever and his partner were the only officers on scene, they did not have their guns drawn, and Officer Dever spoke in a normal tone of voice. N.T. 7/25/11 at 31, 34. Officer Dever testified he asked Appellant whether he had taken any of the pills because, since Appellant was then in custody, Officer Dever was concerned about Appellant's health. N.T. 7/25/11 at 35. As Officer Dever explained, having knowledge as to whether Appellant had taken any pills could help medical personnel in saving Appellant's life if needed. N.T. 7/25/11 at 35.

Following the search of his person, Appellant was was placed in the rear of Officer Dever's patrol vehicle, and Officer Dever returned to the Chevrolet Blazer. N.T. 7/25/11 at 35. Regarding Officer Dever's actions upon returning to the Chevrolet Blazer, the following relevant exchange occurred on direct examination:

Q: Did you retrieve the bottle of Heineken? A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell the Judge how you did that? A: I reached ...

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