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Commonwealth v. Fleet

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 16, 2015


Argued January 6, 2015

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, November 15, 2013, Criminal Division, No. CP-02-CR-0008782-2013. Before BIGLEY, J.

Brandon P. Ging, Public Defender, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

Sandra Preuhs, Assistant District Attorney, Pittsburgh, for Commonwealth, appellee.



Page 841


Samantha Fleet (" Fleet" ) appeals from the November 15, 2013 judgment of sentence entered by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas following he conviction of possession of a controlled substance.[1] Specifically, Fleet challenges the trial court's denial of her motion to suppress, as the fruit of an unlawful search, the heroin and needle found during the execution by police of a warrant for emergency mental health treatment (" 302 warrant" ). Upon review, we conclude that because the Commonwealth failed to satisfy its burden of proof regarding the propriety of the issuance of the 302 warrant, the trial court erred by denying suppression. As Fleet's conviction was based solely upon the evidence obtained during the execution of the 302 warrant, we vacate the judgment of sentence.

The trial court aptly summarized the facts and procedural history of this case as follows:

On December 14, 2012, Crafton Borough Police Officer Stephanie Newcomer was on duty between 3:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. (T.T.) at 4. On that day, Jennifer Fleet, [Fleet]'s mother, entered the Crafton Borough Police station regarding

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text messages [Fleet] sent stating that [Fleet] wanted to kill herself. (T.T.) at 5. Jennifer Fleet showed the text messages to Officer Newcomer. (T.T.) at 5. Jennifer Fleet also told Officer Newcomer that she had conversations with [Fleet] wherein [Fleet] stated that she was depressed and wanted to end things. (T.T.) at 5-6. Upon hearing this information, Officer Newcomer telephoned Rita Agostinelli at the Allegheny County Mental Health Department (the " ACMHD" ) and advised her of the situation. (T.T.) at 6, 11.
Telephoning the ACMHD is an established procedure in the Crafton Borough Police Department and one with which Officer Newcomer was familiar. (T.T.) at 18. Officer Newcomer had encountered warrants and involuntary commitments under the Mental Health Procedures Act (" MHPA" ), 50 P.S. § 7302[,] before this incident. (T.T.) at 18. Jennifer Fleet stated that she would sign a [302] warrant to commit [Fleet]. (T.T.) at 6. Jennifer Fleet read the text messages to Ms. Agostinelli and went into more detail on the telephone. (T.T.) at 16. Ms. Agostinelli instructed Officer Newcomer to tell Jennifer Fleet to follow [Fleet] to the hospital to conclude the paperwork. (T.T.) at 17. At this point, Ms. Agostinelli gave Officer Newcomer verbal authorization over the phone that the [302] warrant would be filed. (T.T.) at 6. Ms. Agostinelli advised Officer Newcomer that as long as Jennifer Fleet followed the ambulance that would be taking [Fleet] to the hospital, she would sign the paperwork that would complete the warrant and commitment. (T.T.) at 7. It is not the Crafton Police Department's policy to require a paper warrant; a verbal warrant such as the one in this matter is sufficient. (T.T.) at 10-11. Officer Newcomer understood that the ACMHD would fax the [302] warrant to the hospital, and that the hospital filled out and finalized the requisite paperwork. (T.T.) at 11-12.
Jennifer Fleet followed Officer Newcomer and the ambulance to [Fleet]'s brother's house wherein [Fleet] was located. (T.T.) at 7-8, 17. [Fleet] was asked to come outside of her brother's home, and was advised of the [302] warrant. (T.T.) at 8, 19. Officer Newcomer asked [Fleet] if she wanted to step inside, because a search was required prior to transportation pursuant to a warrant. (T.T.) at 8, 19. Per Officer Newcomer, a search of the person is required pursuant to a warrant in such a situation for the safety of the police and the ambulance crew. (T.T.) at 9. They went inside and Officer Newcomer asked [Fleet] if she had anything on her. (T.T.) at 8, 19. [Fleet] informed Officer Newcomer that she had heroin on her, and handed the officer a capped syringe and five " stamp bags." (T.T.) at 9. A stamp bag is a small square white bag with suspected heroin in it. (T.T.) at 9. [Fleet] had four empty stamp bags and one stamp bag had 0.1 grams of heroin in it. (T.T.) at 17-18. Laboratory results confirmed that the substance inside the stamp bag was heroin. (T.T.) at 40.
On November 14, 2013, this [c]ourt held a suppression hearing on two issues prior to [Fleet]'s non-jury trial, also before this [c]ourt. [Fleet] argued that the search was illegal; that the search, if legal, exceeded the scope of permissible searches; and that the Commonwealth has a burden to show that they've complied with all the procedural safeguards pertaining to searches. (T.T.) at 25. This [c]ourt denied [Fleet]'s suppression motion. (T.T.) at 35.

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Following that denial, this [c]ourt proceeded to a stipulated non-jury trial incorporating the testimony from the suppression hearing. (T.T.) at 37. The parties stipulated to the laboratory results and that Officer Newcomer would testify that, based on her training and experience, she perceived the needle to be drug paraphernalia used for the ingestion of heroin. (T.T.) at 40. In consideration of the testimony and stipulated evidence, this [c]ourt found [Fleet] guilty of the possession charge at [c]ount [o]ne and not guilty of the paraphernalia charge at [c]ount [t]wo. At [c]ount [o]ne, this [c]ourt sentenced [Fleet] to six months of non-reporting probation and a [d]rug and [a]lcohol [e]valuation. (T.T.) at 45.

Trial Court Opinion, 5/12/14, at 4-6.

On November 25, 2013, Fleet filed a timely post-sentence motion seeking reconsideration of the trial court's denial of her suppression motion. The trial court denied this request on December 4, 2013. On January 2, 2014, Fleet filed her notice of appeal and now presents the following arguments before this Court:

I. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in failing to grant Ms. Fleet's Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion to Suppress Evidence when the Commonwealth failed to establish that the procedural safeguards and requirements of involuntary civil commitment were satisfied?
II. Assuming, arguendo, the Commonwealth established that the procedural safeguards and requirements of involuntary civil commitment were satisfied, whether the [t]rial [c]ourt nonetheless erred in failing to grant Ms. Fleet's Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion to Suppress Evidence when the search of Ms. Fleet's person was not supported by a search warrant, and no specifically established, well-delineated exception to the warrant requirement existed?
III. Assuming, arguendo, the police may conduct a warrantless search of a person incident to a lawful involuntary civil commitment, whether the [t]rial [c]ourt still erred in failing to grant Ms. Fleet's Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion to Suppress Evidence when the police exceeded the permissible scope of such a search?

Fleet's Brief at 4.[2]

We review the trial court's denial of a motion to suppress to determine whether the record supports the trial court's factual findings and whether it reached its legal conclusions in error. Commonwealth v. Enick, 2013 PA Super 176, 70 A.3d 843, 845 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 671, 85 A.3d 482 (Pa. 2014). " If the record supports the trial court's findings of fact, we will reverse only if the trial court's legal conclusions are incorrect." Id. (citation omitted).

Both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. See U.S. Const. amend. IV; Pa. Const. art. I, § 8. The trial court states, however, that because police obtained the contraband while executing a 302 warrant, " the proper inquiry is not under the criminal standards of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article [I], Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution." Trial Court Opinion, 5/12/14, at 7. Rather, according to the trial court, the Commonwealth

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need only " establish that the procedural safeguards and requirements of involuntary civil commitment were satisfied" under the MHPA. Id. at 7, 11. As the trial court found that the Commonwealth satisfied its burden of proving that the issuance of the 302 warrant was proper pursuant to the MHPA, it found that the evidence was not subject to suppression. Id. at 8-10.

Fleet asserts that the trial court's conclusions in both respects are erroneous. First, Fleet disagrees with the trial court's conclusion that involuntary civil commitments are not subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8. Fleet's Brief at 14-18. Fleet further argues that the Commonwealth did not present sufficient evidence to support a finding that the issuance of a 302 warrant was proper, as it failed to present evidence to show that Fleet was a " clear and present danger" under the MHPA or demonstrate compliance with the MHPA's warrant requirement. Id. at 21-23.

At the outset, we find no support for the trial court's notion that persons subjected to involuntary civil commitments are not entitled to the constitutional protections provided by the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8. The trial court is correct that civil commitment proceedings are not " to be based on criminal standards and procedures." In re J.M., 556 Pa. 63, 726 A.2d 1041, 1046 (Pa. 1999); see Trial Court Opinion, 5/12/14, at 7. This relates solely to the burden of proof required at an involuntary civil commitment proceeding, and does not mean that simply because the person is subject to a 302 warrant he or she therefore is not afforded constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by police. These protections apply to all citizens, regardless of their status, when police or other government entities are involved. See U.S. Const. amend. IV (" The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." ); PA. CONST. art. I, § 8 (" The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant." ) (emphasis added); see also Soldal v. Cook Cnty., Ill., 506 U.S. 56, 67, 113 S.Ct. 538, 121 L.Ed.2d 450 (1992) (" the [Fourth] Amendment's protection applies in the civil context as well [as the criminal context]" ).

It is an intrusion by the government, not the status of the citizen, that triggers protection and inquiry into the reasonableness of the intrusion. " The Fourth Amendment and Article I, § 8 have long been interpreted to protect the people from unreasonable government intrusions into their privacy. The reasonableness of a governmental intrusion varies with the degree of privacy legitimately expected and the nature of the governmental intrusion." Commonwealth. v. McCree, 592 Pa. 238, 924 A.2d 621, 626 (Pa. 2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Once a defendant files a motion to suppress, the Commonwealth has the burden of proving that the evidence in question was lawfully obtained without violating the defendant's rights. Pa.R.Crim.P. 581(H). Pursuant to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, there are three categories of interactions between police and a citizen:

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The first of these is a " mere encounter" (or request for information) which need not be supported by any level of suspicion, but carries no official compulsion to stop or to respond. The second, an " investigative detention" must be supported by a reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and a period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of an arrest. ...

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