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Commonwealth v. Ribot

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 15, 2017


         Appeal from the Order March 27, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0009168-2014

          BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., MOULTON, J., and FITZGERALD, J.[*]


          MOULTON, J.

         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the March 27, 2015 order entered in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas granting Angel Ribot's motion in limine to exclude evidence.[1] We reverse.

         On July 26, 2014, Officer Thomas Donahue met with a confidential informant ("CI") to arrange a controlled buy of illegal narcotics and gave the CI a $20 bill. Before giving the bill to the CI, Officer Donahue recorded the bill's serial number into a computer database, printed out a time-stamped copy of the computer entry, and circled the serial number of the bill on the computer printout. Officer Donahue transported the CI to the 2800 block of North Hope Street in Philadelphia, where the CI approached Ribot, engaged him in a brief conversation, and handed him money in exchange for packets of heroin. The Commonwealth charged Ribot with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver ("PWID") and possession of a controlled substance.[2]

         On November 4, 2014, Ribot filed a motion requesting the production of the pre-recorded buy money used in the July 26, 2014 transaction. On November 6, 2014, the trial court ordered the Commonwealth to make the $20 bill available to Ribot for inspection. The Commonwealth did not produce the $20 bill because the bill had been placed back into circulation for use in future controlled buys. It did, however, produce a printout of the time-stamped computer entry showing that the bill's serial number had been recorded the day before the controlled buy.

         On March 26, 2015, Ribot orally moved to preclude the Commonwealth from introducing into evidence any reference to the pre-recorded buy money. At the hearing on the motion,

the Commonwealth presented the testimony of [Officer] Donahue . . . . The officer's testimony [was] as follows: That he has been a narcotics agent for the past five years, using [CIs] and pre-recorded buy money on hundreds of occasions. That he only records serial numbers of the prerecorded buy money at this juncture and that the former protocol was to make photocopies of the funds. Officer Donahue also stated on cross examination that he has photocopied pre-recorded buy money in the past. Counsel for [Ribot] showed the officer a written directive to photocopy all pre-recorded serial numbers of the funds utilized in the investigation. The officer stated that he believed the directive was changed and that it was done orally . . . .

Opinion, 1/19/16, at 2 ("1925(a) Op.") (citations omitted). Officer Donahue testified about his method of pre-recording the buy money as follows:

Prior to leaving my office every day I receive buy money from my sergeant whether it's $200, $300, $400 in cash. I have to go to a computer, we pull up a specific screen, then document all the serial numbers that are on every $20 bill, or $10 bill[, ] whatever the denominations happen to be. You have to document that in the computer. You send it, it becomes a general [sic] in the police department which means it can be pulled up at a later time, and then you printout a copy. You take that copy out with you, circle the specific serial number that you use for specific jobs and then you use that pre-recorded buy money to purchase illegal narcotics.

N.T., 3/26/15, at 11-12.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted Ribot's motion in limine and "precluded the Commonwealth from mentioning that buy money was exchanged or recovered from [Ribot]. However, the police officer can mention that he witnessed an exchange of money between the [CI] and [Ribot]." 1925(a) Op. at 1; see N.T., 3/27/15, at 3-4. The trial court further "stated that the buy money that is in question should have been photocopied and not just the serial numbers placed into the computer." 1925(a) Op. at 1; see N.T., 3/27/15, at 4. The Commonwealth timely appealed to this Court.

         On appeal, the Commonwealth raises the following issue: "Did the lower court err in excluding evidence that money police had pre-recorded for use in the controlled buy was recovered from [Ribot] following the drug deal, on the ground that the police had not photocopied the buy money?" Cmwlth.'s Br. at 4.

         We review a trial court's decision to grant a motion in limine for an abuse of discretion. Commonwealth v. Belani, 101 A.3d 1156, 1160 (Pa.Super. 2014). "'A trial court has broad discretion to determine whether evidence is admissible, ' and [its] ruling regarding the admission of evidence 'will not be disturbed on appeal unless that ruling reflects manifest unreasonableness, or partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, or such lack ...

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