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[U] Commonwealth v. Morales

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 10, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence Entered May 29, 2012, In the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Criminal Division, at No. CP-23-CR-0005957-2011.




Appellant, Hector Morales, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered after a jury convicted him of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (cocaine) ("PWID"), possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and false identification to law enforcement.[1] We affirm.

In its opinion, the trial court recounted the factual and procedural history of this case, which we adopt as though fully restated herein. Trial Court Opinion, 7/25/13, at 1–3. On appeal, Appellant presents three questions for our consideration:

1. Is [Appellant] entitled to a new trial because the trial court violated [his] rights under the Fourth Amendment by admitting the narcotics that [were] seized from [A]ppellant's person during a warrantless search, because the testimony showed that the arresting officer did not have reasonable [sic] cause to search?
2. Was the sentence illegal under the applicable statute and did the trial court abuse its discretion when it sentenced [A]ppellant outside of the sentencing guidelines?
3. Did the trial court commit reversible error when it stated that the Commonwealth had produced circumstantial evidence for possession with intent, and was that error prejudicial?

Appellant's Brief at 8.

Appellant's first question raises a suppression issue. In reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, we must determine whether the record supports the suppression court's factual findings and the legitimacy of the inferences and legal conclusions drawn from those findings. Commonwealth v. Harrell, 65 A.3d 420, 433 (Pa. Super. 2013) (citation omitted). Where the suppression court finds in favor of the prosecution:

[o]ur 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. Wormley, 949 A.2d 946, 948 (Pa. Super. 2008) (quoting Commonwealth v. Reppert, 814 A.2d 1196, 1200 (Pa. Super. 2002) (en banc)). It is a well-settled principle that appellate courts must defer to the credibility determinations of the trial court, which observed the demeanor of the witnesses and heard them testify. Commonwealth v. Khalifah, 852 A.2d 1238, 1240 (Pa. Super. 2004).

Here, due to a scheduling conflict, the suppression hearing was bifurcated. The Commonwealth presented the following evidence at the January 24, 2012 suppression hearing: Officer Righter of the Tinicum Township Police Department observed a maroon Honda Accord with a non-functioning rear brake light and a cracked windshield traveling along Industrial Highway at approximately 12:58 a.m. on July 4, 2011. The officer activated his emergency lights, and the driver stopped at the side of the road. N.T., 1/24/12, at 10–12, 21.

Officer Righter approached the vehicle and made contact with the driver, using his flashlight to illuminate the interior. When the officer asked for documentation, the driver explained that he did not have a valid driver's license. The officer then asked Appellant, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, for a valid driver's license or identification, in the event he could drive the vehicle. N.T., 1/24/12, at 12–13, 21–24, 28, 30. After identifying himself as "William" Morales, Appellant retrieved paperwork from the glove compartment. As Appellant leaned over to speak with the officer, Officer Righter observed the top of a plastic sandwich bag protruding from the side pocket of Appellant's right leg. Id. at 14–15, 25–28. The officer proceeded to the passenger side of the vehicle and asked Appellant what was in the sandwich bag. Appellant took the sandwich bag from his pocket and handed it to the officer. Id. at 15–17, 26–27, 30.

Officer Righter observed a white powdery substance inside the sandwich bag, which he suspected to be a controlled substance. N.T., 1/24/12, at 17, 30. The sandwich bag contained three baggies of cocaine, totaling 8.9 grams, and six or seven unused small plastic baggies. As a veteran narcotics officer, Officer Righter associated the small baggies with drug packaging. Id. at 15, 17–19. The officer removed Appellant from the vehicle and handcuffed him. Id. at 18. Officer Righter did not issue any citations to the driver. Id. at 21.

At the January 31, 2012 suppression hearing, Appellant presented the testimony of the driver, Martin Johnson. Mr. Johnson's testimony was consistent with Officer Righter's description of the traffic stop and Appellant's arrest. N.T., 1/31/12, at 5–6, 9. With regard to the sandwich bag, however, Mr. Johnson described Officer Righter as grabbing the sandwich bag from Appellant's pocket. Appellant tried to retrieve it, telling the officer it was candy. Mr. Johnson suggested that, because he could not see the sandwich bag in Appellant's pocket from where he was sitting, Officer Righter could not have seen it either. Id. at 5–9.

Crediting the testimony of Officer Righter, the trial court denied suppression. On appeal, Appellant challenges the denial of suppression because "Officer Righter did not have any reasonable suspicion that any criminal activity ...

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