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Commonwealth v. Davis

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 11, 2018


          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence, October 24, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-46-CR-0002093-2017.



          KUNSELMAN, J.

         Robert Rostro Davis, III, appeals from the judgment of sentence after his conviction on three drug-related charges. Because the Commonwealth's search of Davis' automobile unreasonably violated his constitutional right of privacy, we reverse.

         The facts of this case, which the arresting police officer - Thomas Byrne - related at the suppression hearing, are uncontradicted.

         At approximately 1:25 a.m. on March 1, 2017, Officer Byrne and his partner responded to a reported car accident in a residential neighborhood, on the southeastern edge of Montgomery County. When they arrived, Philadelphia police were already on the scene. N.T.[1] at 6. Philadelphia's officers quickly left, and nothing of record reflects that they believed crime was afoot. Id. at 15. Additionally, there was no evidence of any damage to property or personal injuries; thus, the report of a car accident was mistaken. Instead, Davis had parked his vehicle on the sidewalk without trespassing on anyone's private property or obstructing the roadway. Id. at 5. Davis, whose door was ajar, "looked like he was passed out" in the driver's seat. Id. at 5-6. The officer attempted to wake him first by yelling and then by rubbing his sternum.

         Davis gradually regained his senses and informed the officer that he had driven there from a nearby friend's house. A paramedic team arrived, interrupting the investigation. They examined Davis for five to ten minutes. He declined treatment, so emergency medical services (EMS) departed without indicating that anything was amiss with Davis or that he could not safely drive. Id. at 15.

         Undeterred, the policeman instructed Davis to step outside the vehicle and place his hands upon the car. Davis complied; the officer frisked him but found "nothing." Id. at 16. He then handcuffed Davis and locked him in the back of the police car. The officer did not have Davis perform a sobriety test, nor was there evidence of bloodshot, glassy eyes or a smell of alcohol or drugs about Davis or his car. Id. at 23. The officer admitted on cross examination that he "wasn't going the route of DUI." Id. at 24.

         After locking Davis in his cruiser, the officer then returned to Davis' vehicle and saw a cigarette box in the compartment of the open, driver-side door. The cigarette container was closed, so the officer could not see its contents. When asked what the cigarette box implied, Officer Byrne explained that "people tend to hide drugs, paraphernalia or other contraband inside empty cigarette packs." Id. at 9. But, on cross examination, he contradicted himself by agreeing with defense counsel that cigarettes are "frequently found" in their boxes. Id. at 18. Officer Byrne testified that he has found drugs in cigarette packs approximately 20 to 25 times over the course of 14 years on the force. Id.

         Officer Byrne seized the cigarette container and placed it on the roof of the car. He then sat in the driver's seat and began looking around. Id. at 20. His search uncovered a small, plastic baggie containing marijuana in the opened sunglass holder above the rearview mirror, which he seized. The policeman then exited the car, opened the cigarette box, and discovered two small baggies of rocklike substances. Id. at 9-13. He seized these as well.

         The suppression court ruled that Officer Byrne had probable cause to search Davis' car and refused to suppress the Commonwealth's evidence. Davis appeals one issue. "Did the suppression court erroneously deny [Davis'] motion to suppress physical evidence where the police arrested [him], searched his automobile, and seized evidence from closed containers without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution?" Davis' Brief at 4.

         The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States dictates that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . ." Moreover, "no Warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the places to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const. Amend. IV. Similarly, Article I, § 8 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provides:

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.

         "As a general rule, a search conducted without a warrant is presumed to be unreasonable unless it can be justified under a recognized exception to the search warrant requirement." Commonwealth v. Agnew, 600 A.2d 1265, 1271 (Pa. Super. 1991). One such exception is a vehicle, because it can drive away. See Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (plurality opinion). In Gary, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reinterpreted Article I, § 8 as paralleling the Fourth Amendment's protections against warrantless searches of automobiles, because "it is desirable to maintain a single, uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict, and inconsistency in this often-litigated area." Id. at 138.[2] Hence, Pennsylvania now follows federal law on this issue; "where police possess probable cause to search a car, a warrantless search is permissible." In re I.M.S., 124 A.3d 311, 317 (Pa. Super. 2015) (discarding Supreme Court of Pennsylvania case law to apply federal, which holds that the probable cause to search a vehicle also licenses an officer to search all sealed containers therein, ...

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