Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules a Late Night Search of a Snyder County Home

A Violation of the Homeowners' Rights Protected by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions!

On November 21, 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court sitting en banc issued an important decision protecting the rights of Pennsylvania homeowners against unreasonable search and seizure. That the facts are important in this case is evidenced by the following statement in the Superior Court's opinion, "Seldom has this Court encountered conduct by law enforcement officers so abjectly inimical to the guarantees of Article I, Section 8 [of the Pennsylvania Constitution]."

On the night of August 25, 2009, four Pennsylvania State Troopers appeared at the residence of a Snyder County couple. The troopers were in search of another individual who was subject to a probation detainer for failure to respond to a traffic citation. The troopers had received an unconfirmed "tip" from a source of admitted unknown reliability that the individual might be present at a certain Buckwheat Valley Road address.

When the troopers arrived at the address they saw two residential properties - one of which turned out to be rented and occupied by the Snyder County couple. The troopers noticed all the rooms inside the residence were dark and the residents appeared to be sleeping. At 11:30 P.M, the troopers "banged" on the door "pushing it open" and smelled burnt marijuana emanating from inside. The trooper in charge entered the home, flashed a light around the room and noticed a woman and her sister each asleep on separate sofas. The women awakened. One reported she was "terrified."

The trooper announced that because he had smelled marijuana in their home he was securing the home while his fellow troopers obtained a search warrant. The trooper asked if anyone else was present in the home. One of the women said her husband was in their bedroom and got up to go and get him. The trooper told her to stay where she was and that he would go and get him. The trooper walked into the bedroom saw the husband and also saw marijuana and drug paraphernalia lying around the room in "plain view."

The trooper escorted the husband out of his bedroom and into the living room explaining to the residents they were not under arrest but were not free to leave. Two of the troopers then went next door to the neighbors still in search of the person who failed to respond to the traffic citation. Although they did not find that person, they searched the neighbor's residence and found marijuana in "plan view" there as well. The troopers then ordered the Snyder County family, including the husband, his pregnant wife, and their 4-year old daughter, be "removed" from their home and "confined" within their neighbor's home while two of the troopers went to obtain a search warrant. Two of the troopers remained on the scene to "oversee" the "suspects."

Two hours later the other two troopers returned with a search warrant. Four or five additional troopers also arrived on the scene. Now the approximately nine state troopers searched the Snyder County home while the family members were "confined" within their neighbor's home. The troopers also "searched" the family car parked out front by "jimmying" the door open.

The sum total of marijuana found as a result of this several hour-long raid of the family residence in the wee hours of the morning amounted to less than 30 grams of marijuana, constituting a "small amount" under the Controlled Substances Act. 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(31). This is just about the lowest level drug charge possible.

At a stipulated bench trial the court found the husband and wife guilty as charged and sentenced each to pay a fine of $1,000, serve one month to twenty-three months' in jail with immediate parole upon completion of the one-month minimum and a concurrent sentence of 37 months' probation. It is not evident from the opinion what happened to the couple's 4-year old daughter while her mom and dad were in jail for possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana in their home.

The Snyder County couple challenged the legality of the search and seizure under the 4thAmendment to the United States Constitution and Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Both the trial court and the Superior Court panel ruled that although the search was unlawful the contraband would be admitted into evidence on a supposition of inevitable discovery pursuant to the "independent source" rule. Thus the conviction and sentence stood. Then, the Pennsylvania Superior Court sitting en banc reversed the Superior Court panel and the trial court and ordered the couple discharged.

The en banc Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth's argument that the entry into the family's home did not constitute an "unconstitutional invasion of privacy." At this stage the Commonwealth had abandoned its argument that the entry was conducted based upon "exigent circumstances," perhaps acknowledging, correctly, that the troopers caused the "exigent circumstances" and thus the entry was unlawful.

However, the Commonwealth argued against the application of the "exclusionary rule," on the grounds the contraband would have been discovered inevitably and regardless of the unlawful search. Nevertheless, the Court rightly refused to apply the "inevitable discovery" rule on the grounds that there was no "independent source" of information, that would have led to the contraband, that was not "tainted" by the unlawful entry.

In its opinion, the Court recognized the "fundamental sanctity of the home as a sanctuary into which police intrusion of the form on display in this case must be constrained with extraordinary vigilance." The Court cited federal law, "It is axiomatic that the 'physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.'" Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 748 (1984) (quoting United States v. U.S. District Court, 407 U.S. 297, 313 (1972)). The Court stated, "That constitutional imperative, which both federal and state jurisprudence embrace to its core, has garnered the defense of generations of jurists whose injunctions against police excess ring no less resolute today than when first consigned to paper."

In conclusion the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the actions of the Pennsylvania State Troopers constituted misconduct within the meaning of the 4th Amendment, but more importantly, "and an invasion of the defendants' privacy interest in their home pursuant to Article I Section 8 of the Constitution of this Commonwealth." The Pennsylvania Superior Court, led in this case by Judge John T. Bender, should be commended for this strong decision in support of our Constitutional rights.

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