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Commonwealth v. Lagenella

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 27, 2013

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
v.
Francis Patrick LAGENELLA, Jr., Appellant.

Argued Oct. 16, 2012.

Appeal from the order of the Superior Court at No. 255 MDA 2010 dated 04-05-2011 affirming the Judgment of Sentence of the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, at No. CP-22-CR-540-2009 dated 01-11-2010. Trial Court Judge: Scott A. Evans, Judge; Intermediate Court Judges: Correale F. Stevens; Jacqueline O. Shogan; Sallie Mundy, Judges.

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Bradley Adam Winnick, Esq., Dauphin County Public Defender's Office, Damian Joseph DeStefano, Esq., Andrea Lynn Haynes, Esq., for Francis Patrick, Lagenella Jr.

Edward Michael Marsico Jr., Esq., Christopher Joseph Schmidt, Esq., Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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

OPINION

TODD, Justice.

We granted review in this matter to determine whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court's denial of Appellant's motion to suppress evidence seized by a police officer during a warrantless inventory search of Appellant's vehicle following a valid traffic stop. For the reasons set forth below, we are constrained to conclude there was no basis for the officer to conduct an inventory search of Appellant's vehicle, and, therefore, that the evidence discovered during the inventory search should have been suppressed. Accordingly, we reverse the Superior Court's order and remand the matter to the Superior Court for remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

On December 31, 2008, at approximately 1:42 a.m., Corporal Terry Wealand of the Harrisburg Bureau of Police (" Department" ) observed a black Ford Mustang enter the flow of traffic without using a turn signal. Corporal Wealand activated his emergency lights and initiated a traffic stop of the Mustang, which was traveling west-bound on a one-way street. The vehicle, driven by Appellant, came to rest with the passenger side tires approximately two feet from the curb, but the vehicle was not blocking traffic. Corporal Wealand approached the driver's-side door and requested Appellant's driver's license, registration, and insurance information. During the stop, Corporal Wealand noticed that Appellant's vehicle did not have the required emissions sticker, and he also learned Appellant's license was suspended. Thus, he issued Appellant two citations, one for driving with a suspended license, and one for operating a vehicle without a valid inspection, and asked Appellant to step out of his car in order to sign for the citations. At that time, Corporal Wealand told Appellant that he was free to leave, but that the car would be towed because of Appellant's suspended license.[1] Appellant

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indicated that he had a friend with a tow truck whom he could call to take possession of his vehicle, but the officer informed Appellant of the Department's policy of impoundment and towing (" towing policy" ).[2] Corporal Wealand also advised Appellant that, pursuant to Department policy, he was required to conduct an inventory of the contents of the vehicle (" inventory policy" ). Appellant asked to stay and observe the inventory search, and he was permitted to do so.

Corporal Wealand testified that, pursuant to the Department's standard inventory policy for securing and inventorying the contents of an impounded vehicle, officers utilize a computer-generated form, which is accessible from their police cars, to document the condition, and inventory the contents, of a vehicle prior to having it towed. N.T. Suppression Hearing, 9/22/09, at 9. Corporal Wealand further testified that each field on the computer form must be completed before the computer will allow the officer to proceed to the next field. Id. at 10. Corporal Wealand identified the computer-generated form that he completed in connection with his inventory search of Appellant's vehicle on December 31, 2008, and specifically identified the field where he was required to document that he checked the vehicle's trunk. Id.

Next, Corporal Wealand testified that it was below freezing at the time of the traffic stop, and that Appellant was not wearing a jacket. Therefore, when he began the inventory search and observed a jacket in the backseat of the car, he asked Appellant if he wanted the jacket. Appellant indicated that he did, and Corporal Wealand advised Appellant that he would first need to check it for weapons. Appellant consented, and when Corporal Wealand " squeezed" the jacket to make sure there were no weapons, he felt a hard object, which Appellant indicated was an eyeglass case, in one of the pockets. Corporal Wealand testified that Appellant told him to " go ahead" and open the eyeglass case. Id. at 12. When Corporal Wealand opened the eyeglass case, he observed two bags containing marijuana seeds, several plastic bags with what he believed to be cocaine residue, and a box-cutter. At this point, Appellant was placed under arrest, handcuffed, and seated behind the vehicle. Corporal Wealand then resumed the inventory search, and, upon opening the trunk of the vehicle, discovered a Savage Stevens 20-gauge shotgun and a Sears and Roebuck .30-06 hunting rifle. Based on the earlier computer check of Appellant's license, Corporal Wealand knew Appellant was a convicted felon who could not possess weapons, and Appellant admitted the hunting rifle was stolen.

Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence of the drugs and weapons discovered during the inventory search, arguing, inter alia, that he did not consent to the opening of the eyeglass case and there was no basis for Corporal Wealand to open the case under the plain feel doctrine, and that Corporal Wealand lacked authority to tow his vehicle pursuant 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6309.2 because the vehicle did not present an issue of public safety. The trial court denied the motion with respect to the weapons, but granted the motion with respect to the drugs found in the eyeglass case. Thereafter, Appellant was convicted at a bench trial of receiving stolen property and unlawful possession of a firearm, and sentenced to 3 to 10 years incarceration. Appellant appealed his judgment of sentence to the Superior Court, wherein he argued, inter alia, that police may not tow a vehicle simply because

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their agency has issued a written order authorizing them to do so, and that 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6309.2 allows for the towing of a vehicle only if there is an issue of public safety, which he contends was lacking in the instant case.

On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence in a published split panel decision. Commonwealth v. Lagenella, 17 A.3d 1257 (Pa.Super.2011). Quoting at great length from its decision in Commonwealth v. Thompson, 999 A.2d 616 (Pa.Super.2010), a majority of the court concluded that: (a) Corporal Wealand conducted a valid vehicle stop after observing Appellant fail to use his turn signal; and (b) after learning Appellant's license was suspended, Corporal Wealand " properly immobilized Appellant's vehicle and informed Appellant it would need to be towed." Lagenella, 17 A.3d at 1264. The majority further held that Corporal Wealand conducted a valid inventory search of Appellant's vehicle pursuant to the Department's written inventory policy, and that he was engaged in a lawful inventory search when he discovered the weapons in the trunk of Appellant's vehicle. The court did not expressly address the propriety of Corporal Wealand's decision to tow Appellant's vehicle.

Judge Shogan dissented, noting that an inventory search is designed to protect the owner's property, not uncover evidence. Although Judge Shogan opined that Corporal Wealand had " lawful custody" of Appellant's vehicle because Appellant could not operate the vehicle, she determined there was no need to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle because there was no reason to tow the vehicle, as it did not present a safety concern, was not blocking traffic, and possibly could have been retrieved by Appellant's friend. She further noted that nothing of value was visible in the vehicle; that, contrary to the majority's suggestion, the Commonwealth presented no evidence that the search took place pursuant to the Department's standard procedures; and that, even if the search began as an inventory search, it became investigatory once Corporal Wealand discovered the drug residue in the eyeglass case, at which time Corporal Wealand should have stopped the inventory search and obtained a search warrant.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal with this Court, and we granted review to consider whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court's denial of Appellant's suppression motion. In reviewing a ruling on a suppression motion, our standard of review is whether the factual findings and the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are supported by the evidence. Commonwealth v. Wholaver, 605 Pa. 325, 347, 989 A.2d 883, 896 (2010). Further, the reviewing court may consider only the Commonwealth's evidence and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the of the entire record. Commonwealth v. Russo, 594 Pa. 119, 126, 934 A.2d 1199, 1203 (Pa.2007).

In arguing the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the inventory search of his vehicle, Appellant maintains that Corporal Wealand did not have " lawful custody" of his vehicle because there was no issue of public safety, and, therefore, no basis for his decision to tow the vehicle. Appellant's Brief at 14. Specifically, Appellant asserts:

Corporal Wealand admitted that the vehicle posed no detriment to the flow of traffic and no safety hazard. The vehicle was legally parked at the curb, and there was nothing to indicate that the vehicle was damaged in any way. Appellant's

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vehicle was moveable and it was not obstructing traffic. There was no valuable property within plain view. Moreover, Appellant notified Corporal Wealand that he had a friend who would be able to pick up the car, thus securing the vehicle and the property within.

Id. at 14-15 (record citations omitted).

Appellant contends that, because Corporal Wealand had no basis to tow his vehicle, there was no basis for Corporal Wealand to conduct an inventory search of his vehicle, and, therefore, that the inventory search violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and under Article 1, Section 8, of the Pennsylvania Constitution.[3] Appellant further argues that, once Corporal Wealand discovered contraband in the eyeglass case, the alleged inventory search became an investigatory search for which Corporal Wealand was required to obtain a warrant.

The Commonwealth responds that, pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6309.2, Corporal Wealand was required to immobilize Appellant's vehicle after determining the vehicle did not have a valid emissions sticker and Appellant had a suspended license. The Commonwealth further suggests that, once a vehicle has been legally immobilized, police have " lawfully taken custody of the vehicle," and should be permitted to conduct an inventory search for the protection of the property owner and the police against claims of lost or stolen property. Commonwealth's Brief at 11. Finally, the Commonwealth argues that, once police discover contraband during a valid inventory search, they may continue the inventory search without stopping to obtain a search warrant.

Section 6309.2 of Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Code provides, in relevant part:

(a) General rule.— Subject to subsection (d), the following shall apply:
(1) If a person operates a motor vehicle ... on a highway or trafficway of this Commonwealth while the person's operating privilege is suspended, ... as verified by an appropriate law enforcement officer in cooperation with the department, the law enforcement officer shall immobilize the vehicle ... or, in the interest of public safety, direct that the vehicle be towed and stored by the appropriate towing ...

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