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United States v. Fisher

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 18, 2018




         Presently before the court is Defendant's motion to suppress evidence recovered from a warranted search of Defendant's automobile. For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be denied.

         I. Background

         On November 1, 2017, Defendant was charged, along with six co-defendants in a multi-count Indictment, with 1) one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), 2) five counts of distribution or possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and 3) one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(a). (Doc. 3.)

         On February 28, 2018, Defendant moved to suppress the evidence supporting the charges against him in the Indictment (Doc. 94), and the court held a suppression hearing on May 24, 2018. At the hearing, the court heard testimony from Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) Trooper and Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Task Force Officer Shawn Wolfe, York County Drug Task Force Officer Adam Bruckhart, PSP Corporal Justin Long, and PSP Trooper Justin Dembowski.[1]

         The testimony given by the officers at the suppression hearing, as well as the relevant police reports and affidavits of probable cause in support of two search warrants, reflect that the York County and FBI Drug Task Forces had information from a confidential informant and from their own surveillance that Defendant, along with co-defendant Arthur Love and others, were engaged in the distribution of cocaine. This illicit drug activity was conducted primarily from the “east end projects, ” a housing development in York County, Pennsylvania, and Defendant, along with his co-defendants, were members of an alleged gang called the “East End Boys.” After a series of controlled buys with a confidential informant in late 2016, Trooper Wolfe obtained a search warrant for Defendant's home located at 717 Edison Street, York, Pennsylvania. Included in the affidavit was mention of Defendant's vehicle, which had been observed by police during Defendant's drug distribution, and was described as a “Gold Color Infiniti SUV.”

         On January 26, 2017, members of the PSP and the FBI searched Defendant's home pursuant to the search warrant. During the search, Defendant indicated that an Infinity SUV parked outside his home belonged to him, and Corporal Long drove the vehicle to the PSP impound garage in York County for purposes of forfeiture. Per departmental policy, Corporal Long then conducted a custodial inventory search of the vehicle. Upon opening the center console of the vehicle, Corporal Long discovered a black semi-automatic handgun, a bag of cocaine, and a sum of United States currency. Corporal Long stopped the search and informed the other officers of what he had found. The PSP then obtained a search warrant to search the remainder of the vehicle.

         Defendant has moved to suppress the evidence found in his automobile on the basis that the police lacked probable cause to seize and conduct the warrantless search of the vehicle. (See Docs. 94 & 95.)

         II. Legal Standard

         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution grants individuals the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, ” and provides that “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.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Probable cause sufficient to support a search warrant exists when, under the totality of the circumstances, “there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983). “Probable cause can be, and often is, inferred by considering the type of crime, the nature of the items sought, the suspect's opportunity for concealment and normal inferences about where a criminal might hide the fruits of his crime.” United States v. Kofsky, Crim. No. 06-cr-0392, 2007 WL 2480971, *17 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 28, 2007). The Third Circuit has defined probable cause as “reasonable grounds for the belief of guilt supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion.” United States v. $734, 578.82, 286 F.3d 641, 648 (3d Cir. 2002).

         Pursuant to state statute in Pennsylvania, police may seize property, including vehicles, for purposes of forfeiture if, inter alia, “[t]here is probable cause to believe that the property has been used or is intended to be used in violation of . . . The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, or another offense for which forfeiture is expressly authorized as a sanction.” 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 5803(b); see also 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 5802. Such seizures may occur without a warrant, but the Government must prove that a nexus exists between drug-related activities and the defendant's vehicle. See Commonwealth v. One (1) 1993 Pontiac Trans Am, 809 A.2d 444, 446 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2002).

         III. Discussion

         In the matter sub judice, the affidavit of probable cause supporting the January 25, 2017 search warrant for Defendant's home mentions a “Gold Color Infiniti SUV, ” and during the search on January 26, 2017, an Infiniti SUV was parked to the rear of Defendant's home. In the affidavit of probable cause supporting the warrant for the subsequent search of the automobile, the vehicle is described as gray, rather than gold. Based on, inter alia, the inconsistency between the affidavits in referring to the Infiniti as gray and gold, Defendant argues that the evidence found in the vehicle should be suppressed because there was no probable cause to support a search. The court disagrees.

         Between the testimony at the suppression hearing and the written record, which includes multiple police reports, search warrants, and affidavits of probable cause, it is clear that officers from the PSP and the FBI Drug Task Force observed Defendant sell cocaine to confidential informants on several occasions, watching Defendant come and go from his residence at 717 Edison Street and driving an Infiniti SUV, which was usually parked to the rear of his residence when Defendant was at home. During the January 26, 2017 search of his home, the Infiniti was parked in its usual location behind Defendant's home, and he both told police that he owned the vehicle and ...

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