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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William Harry Snyder

January 18, 2013

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
WILLIAM HARRY SNYDER, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered November 9, 2011, in the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, Criminal Division, at No(s): CP-04-CR-0000057-2011.

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

BEFORE: PANELLA, ALLEN, and STRASSBURGER,*fn1 JJ.

William Harry Snyder, ("Appellant"), appeals from the judgment of sentence entered following his conviction on one count of obstructing the administration of law enforcement or other governmental official after Appellant divulged the plans of the Aliquippa Police Department to acquire search warrants for residences in the Valley Terrace apartment complex.*fn2 We affirm the judgment of sentence.

The pertinent facts and procedural history may be summarized as follows: Shortly after midnight on December 28, 2010, Detective Donald Anthony Couch of the City of Aliquippa Police Department received a report that a fatal shooting had occurred in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and that the victim, Robert Hall, was discovered in a parking lot at the Valley Terrace apartment complex. N.T., 9/15/11, at 5-6. Valley Terrace employed Victory Security Company to provide armed security guards at the apartment complex, and shortly after the shooting, Detective Couch learned that three Valley Terrace Security Officers had witnessed part of the activity leading up to the shooting. Id. at 7-8. Detective Couch commenced an investigation of the homicide and on December 29, 2010, convened a meeting to discuss the status of the investigation. Because of a history of good rapport between the City of Aliquippa Police and the Victory Security guards at Valley Terrace, Detective Couch invited three security guards from Victory Security, including Appellant, to participate in the December 29, 2010 meeting as "witnesses" and to "shed light" on the investigation. Id. at 9-14. Also present at the meeting were several other Aliquippa Police officers, and several Beaver County Detectives. Id. Detective Couch informed the Victory Security guards that all discussions taking place at the meeting were highly confidential. Id. at 13. Among the matters discussed at this meeting was Detective Couch's intent to obtain search warrants for several Valley Terrace apartments, including a search warrant for the apartment of an individual named Roger Henderson. Id. at 12.

At the time of the December 29, 2010 meeting with Detective Couch, Appellant had been employed as a security guard at Valley Terrace for approximately three months. N.T., 9/14/11 at 61. On January 1, 2011, three days after the meeting with Detective Couch, Appellant became involved in a verbal altercation with Thomas Allman and James English, his supervisors at Victory Security. N.T., 9/14/11, at 54-56; 71-74. As a consequence, Appellant was discharged from his job duties as a security guard at Valley Terrace. Id. at 63. That evening, Appellant visited the apartment of Roger Henderson, a Valley Terrace resident, and informed Mr. Henderson that the Aliquippa Police would be acquiring search warrants for Mr. Henderson's apartment as well as several other residences in the Valley Terrace apartment complex. Id. at 81-82. Mr. Henderson informed his mother, with whom he shared the residence, and several other individuals, about the impending search warrants. Id. at 82.

The following day, Mr. Henderson spoke with Mr. Allman and Mr. English, Appellant's supervisors with Victory Security, about his conversation with Appellant. Id. at 56. Following the conversation with Mr. Henderson, Mr. English and Mr. Allman informed the Aliquippa Police Department that the search warrants had been compromised. Id. at 58. Detective Couch instructed Mr. Allman to complete a detailed report and submit it to the Aliquippa police, and Mr. Allman complied. N.T., 9/15/11, at 16. Detective Couch then interviewed Mr. Allman, Mr. English and Mr. Henderson, after which the Detective consulted with the District Attorney's office, who recommended that Appellant be charged with violating 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5101. Id.

On January 3, 2011, Detective Couch contacted Appellant and asked him to come to the Aliquippa Police Station. On January 4, 2011, at 9:30 a.m., Appellant arrived at the police station. At the station, Detective Couch led Appellant to a conference table. Without issuing Miranda*fn3 warnings, Detective Couch began to explain to Appellant that he was aware that Appellant had divulged the plans to execute search warrants, that he had spoken with and interviewed the people involved, and that he had a warrant for Appellant's arrest. Appellant then informed Detective Couch that he had told Mr. Henderson about the search warrants because he was mad at his supervisors. N.T., 9/14/11, at 15; N.T., 9/15/11, at 17-20. Detective Couch then provided Appellant with Miranda warnings, after which Appellant indicated that he would not make any more statements, and declined to sign a Miranda waiver. Appellant was arrested and transported to a Magisterial District Judge for arraignment. N.T., 9/15/11, at 22.

Thereafter, Detective Couch decided that it would not be practical to execute the search warrants because of Appellant's having tipped off Mr. Henderson, which greatly decreased the likelihood of finding evidence. Id. at 25-26. Moreover, Detective Couch was concerned that the search warrants would be dangerous to execute without the element of surprise. Detective Couch therefore opted not to execute the search warrants and testified that Appellant's actions significantly compromised his investigation into the death of Robert Hall.*fn4 See also Trial Court Opinion, 3/8/12, at 1-3. On February 7, 2011, Appellant was charged with one count of Obstructing the Administration of Law Enforcement of Other Governmental Official, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5101. On September 14, 2011, prior to the commencement of jury trial, Appellant made an oral motion to suppress the incriminating statements he had made to Detective Couch on January 3, 2011. Following a hearing, the trial court denied Appellant's motion. Jury trial commenced that same day. At trial, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Detective Couch, Thomas Allman, James English, and Roger Henderson. Appellant opted not to testify at trial. On September 15, 2011, the jury found Appellant guilty, and on November 9, 2011, the trial court sentenced Appellant to serve one year of probation. No post-sentence motions were filed. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal on December 7, 2011. Both Appellant and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

Appellant raises the following issues for our review:

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT SUPPRESSING

THE APPELLANT'S INCRIMINATING STATEMENT MADE TO DETECTIVE SERGEANT COUCH WHILE IN THE SETTING OF CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION PRIOR TO BEING GIVEN MIRANDA WARNINGS?

II. WHETHER THE COMMONWEALTH PRESENTED SUFFICIENT

EVIDENCE TO CONVICT APPELLANT OF OBSTRUCTING ADMINISTRATION OF LAW OR OTHER GOVERNMENTAL FUNCTION BY INTENTIONALLY OBSTRUCTING, IMPAIRING OR PERVERTING THE ADMINISTRATION OF LAW BY UNLAWFUL PHYSICAL INTERFERENCE OR OBSTACLE OR BY BREACH OF AN OFFICIAL DUTY?

Appellant's Brief at 6.

In his first issue, Appellant argues that the trial court erred in failing to suppress the incriminating statements he made to Detective Couch. Appellant's Brief at 14-17. Our appellate standard of review of suppression motions is as follows:

Our standard of review of a denial of suppression is whether the record supports the trial court's factual findings and whether the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are free from error. Our scope of review is limited; we may consider only the evidence of the prosecution 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 record supports the findings of the suppression court, we are bound by those facts and may reverse only if the court erred in reaching its legal conclusions based upon the facts.

Commonwealth v. Reppert, 814 A.2d 1196, 1200 (Pa. Super. 2002) (citations omitted).

Appellant argues that his statements to Detective Couch should have been suppressed because he was in police custody and subject to police interrogation at the time he made the incriminating statements, but was not provided with Miranda warnings. Appellant's Brief at 14-17. "The law is clear that Miranda is not implicated unless the individual is in custody and subjected to interrogation." Commonwealth v. Umstead, 916 A.2d 1146, 1149-1152 (Pa. Super. 2007) (citations omitted) (emphasis added); see Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 64 L.Ed.2d 297 (1980).

"Police detentions only become custodial when, under the totality of the circumstances, the conditions and/or duration of the detention become so coercive as to constitute the functional equivalent of formal arrest ... [T]he test focuses on whether the individual being interrogated reasonably believes his freedom of action is being restricted." Commonwealth v. Baker, 963 A.2d 495, 501 (Pa. Super. 2008) (citations omitted).

Interrogation is defined as "police conduct calculated to, expected to, or likely to evoke admission." Commonwealth v. Umstead, 916 A.2d 1146, 1152 (Pa. Super. 2007) (citations omitted); see Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 64 L.Ed.2d 297 (1980) ("the definition of interrogation can extend only to words or actions on the part of police officers that they should have known were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response").

Neither the trial court nor the Commonwealth contest Appellant's assertion that he was in custody. Rather, the issue on appeal centers on whether Appellant was subjected to an interrogation. The trial court, concluding that Appellant was not subjected to an interrogation, explained:

[Upon Appellant's arrival at the police station], Detective Couch briefly informed [Appellant] of the information he had obtained indicating that Appellant had tipped off Roger Henderson to the future search warrants. His informational statement was brief. Detective Couch did nothing to indicate that [Appellant] was intended to respond and as soon as [Appellant] spoke, Detective Couch stopped him and provided Miranda warnings, evidencing that Detective Couch was not intending to elicit a statement from [Appellant] prior to giving Miranda warnings.

Trial Court Opinion, 3/8/12, at 7. Accordingly, the trial court concluded that since Detective Couch did not use words or actions that he should have known were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response, Appellant was not subject to an interrogation and therefore Miranda warnings were not required.

Appellant, however, cites Commonwealth v. DeJesus, 787 A.2d 394 (Pa. 2001) abrogated on other grounds, Commonwealth v. Cousar, 593 Pa. 204, 928 A.2d 1025 (2007) in support of his claim that he was ...


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