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Commonwealth v. Runyan

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 20, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellant
v.
DAWNA J. RUNYAN

         Appeal from the Order September 7, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-43-CR-0001422-2015

          BEFORE: PANELLA, STABILE, JJ., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]

          OPINION

          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         Appellant, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appeals from the September 7, 2016, order granting the suppression motion filed by Appellee, Dawna J. Runyan.[1] Following our careful review of the record and the law, we reverse and remand.

         Appellee was charged with three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(32), and with the assistance of counsel, she filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking to suppress physical evidence seized by the police. On September 7, 2016, the matter proceeded to a suppression hearing, at which the sole testifying witness was Police Officer Erick A. Gatewood on behalf of the Commonwealth.

         Specifically, Officer Gatewood testified that he has been an officer with the Farrell Police Department since January of 2016, and prior to that, he was an officer with the Southwest Regional Police Department for nine years. N.T., 9/7/16, at 3-4. Officer Gatewood has experience, in addition to his normal duties, with the Mercer County Drug Task Force and the Community Emergency Response Team. Id. at 4.

         On August 27, 2015, Officer Gatewood, who was on patrol with Officer Douglas Farley, was in full uniform and driving a marked cruiser. Id. At approximately 12:32 a.m., the officers were patrolling in the area of a local bar, Razzcal's, which is located in a high crime area, known for gang violence, drug violence, and drug sales. Id. at 4-5. Officer Gatewood testified that, on many occasions, the police have arrested drug users and sellers in occupied vehicles parked around Razzcal's. Id. at 5.

         Officer Gatewood observed a sedan parked on the west side of the building that had four occupants in it. Id. Officer Gatewood and his partner parked behind Razzcal's, on the southwest side of the building, and walked up to the occupied vehicle to "check out...what was going on[.]" Id. Officer Gatewood approached on the passenger's side of the vehicle, while Officer Farley approached on the driver's side of the vehicle. Id. Neither officer approached with their weapons drawn, although Officer Gatewood was using his flashlight since it was dark. Id.

         Officer Gatewood saw a female, later identified as Kayla Fair, sitting in the driver's seat, and a male, later identified as James West, sitting in the front passenger seat. Id. at 6. A female, later identified as Appellee, was sitting in the back passenger seat on the driver's side, while another female, later identified as Rosemary Funk, was sitting in the back passenger seat on the passenger side. Id. at 6, 8.

         As Officer Gatewood approached the vehicle he "detected the odor of burnt marijuana coming from the area around the vehicle." Id. at 6. In response, Officer Gatewood "walked up to the passenger side and [ ] looked into the vehicle[.] [He] observed a small bag of what appeared to be marijuana on the back seat passenger side floor." Id. Officer Gatewood testified that he has "dealt with marijuana regularly since [he has] been a patrol officer for ten years. [He] couldn't even imagine how many times [he has] dealt with it or recovered it or seized it." Id. at 7.

         The officers brought the existence of the baggie of marijuana "to the attention of the occupants." Id. In response, the driver "tried crawling into the back seat, between the seats, . . .and then she tried to exit the vehicle." Id. Officer Gatewood indicated that the other occupants did not make any kind of movement. Id.

         At this point, "[b]ecause of the driver['s] reaction and the possibility of marijuana being in the car, " the officers asked the occupants to exit the vehicle. Id. The officers handcuffed each occupant and detained them behind the vehicle. Id. Officer Gatewood testified that he then searched the vehicle. Specifically, he testified as follows:

[ADA]: And then what did you do?
[Officer Gatewood]: Because I seen [sic] the marijuana in the vehicle, I searched the vehicle.
[ADA]: And what was the result of your search?
[Officer Gatewood]: I recovered the baggie of marijuana, the suspected marijuana, and then there were several purses in the vehicle, which I removed and I searched them.
[ADA]: And did you find out whose purses belonged to who? How did that happen?
[Officer Gatewood]: I searched the one purse, which was [Appellee's] purse[.]
[ADA]: Okay.
[Officer Gatewood]: And I found a spoon and a syringe and a ...

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