Superior Court vacates sentence of Pa. man convicted of gun violations

Jon Campisi Dec. 27, 2011, 9:15am

Pennsylvania’s second-highest appellate court this week vacated the sentence of a man who was found guilty of firearms violations during a trial in state court last year.

In an opinion written by Superior Court Judge Christine L. Donohue, the jurists ruled that the trial court erred in denying Trayvon Joseph’s motion to suppress evidence against him, which originated from a case in which he had been arrested on gun charges following a vehicle stop in Cumberland County, Pa. in late January 2010.

Pennsylvania State troopers had pulled over Joseph’s vehicle after the driver was observed driving erratically.

The troopers, who had witnessed Joseph’s vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed and crossing the fog line several times, eventually decided to hold Joseph’s vehicle at the scene as they waited for the issuance of a warrant to search his vehicle, which they claimed contained items, such as air fresheners and potpourri, that are consistent with drug use, according to court papers.

Josephs didn’t give consent to search the vehicle, but the troopers had contended they had enough reasonable articulable suspicion to hold the vehicle at the scene until a search warrant could be produced.

When the troopers conducted an “inventory search” of the vehicle after a tow truck arrived to move the vehicle to a safe area, they discovered a loaded pistol.

The troopers ended up charging Joseph with persons not to possess firearms and carrying firearms without a license.

After an evidentiary hearing in August 2010, the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas denied Joseph’s motion to suppress the evidence found inside his car.

The defendant had maintained that the evidence was secured without a search warrant, an alleged Fourth Amendment violation.

At the conclusion of the Sept. 28, 2010 trial, a jury convicted Joseph of both gun charges.

Joseph subsequently filed an appeal of the verdict.

Last week, Superior Court ruled that the trial court did, in fact, err when it denied Joseph’s motion to suppress the evidence.

The appellate panel wrote that the state troopers had reasonable suspicion that Joseph had committed a crime. The state Supreme Court, however, has ruled that probable cause is needed to search a vehicle without a warrant, not mere suspicion.

“Pursuant to Pennsylvania’s ‘limited automobile exception,’ warrantless vehicle searches and/or seizures must be accompanied by both probable cause and exigent circumstances beyond the mere mobility of the vehicle,” the Superior Court ruling states. “Where probable cause and exigent circumstances exist, police may either search the vehicle without a warrant or immobilize it until a search warrant may be obtained.”

In Joseph’s case, however, police decided to “immobilize” his vehicle until a warrant could be procured, which the appellate court wrote “unquestionably constituted a seizure of the vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.”

In reiterating its point about probable cause being needed to immobilize a vehicle pending a search, the court addressed the “incongruity of permitting the police to detain a certain vehicle while obtaining a warrant to search it based on the officers’ reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing – since the warrant itself can issue only upon a magistrate’s finding of probable cause to search.”

In its appeal to Joseph’s motion, the commonwealth had argued that the troopers did, in fact, have probable cause to immobilize the vehicle, which included Joseph’s criminal history of drug offenses, the fact that he was entering an interstate from an area known for high drug trafficking and the fact that he had become agitated when officers asked him if he had any drugs or weapons in the car.

The court ruled otherwise.

“While these facts clearly provided a reasonable basis for [the trooper’s] suspicions regarding Joseph’s activities, we disagree that they established probable cause for a seizure of Joseph’s vehicle,” the ruling states.

The Superior Court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the decision.

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