A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

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By Burt Rose

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In COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Brian JOHNSON, Appellee, 2013 WL 1737024, No. 1425 EDA 2012 (April 23, 2013), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the Commonwealth on an appeal from a suppression Order entered by Judge John Rufe of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Criminal Division, CP–09–CR–0000455–2012. The case was before Judges PANELLA, ALLEN, and PLATT. Judge Allen wrote the Opinion without any dissent.

The Commonwealth challenged the trial court’s conclusion that the police officers lacked the probable cause and exigent circumstances necessary to take the Appellee into custody and search his trailer.

The facts were that police officers arrived at Johnson’s trailer in response to a report of ongoing drug dealing. While making their way to Johnson’s trailer, the police officers encountered a woman who met the description provided to them as being involved in the drug activity which they were investigating. Fearing that the woman would alert the occupants of the trailer to their presence, leading to the destruction of evidence, the police officers opted to knock on the door of Johnson’s trailer in furtherance of their investigation. Upon ascending the steps to the door of the trailer, the officers immediately detected a strong odor of burnt marijuana coming from within the trailer.

The officers then proceeded with their investigation by knocking on the door of the trailer. When Johnson opened the front door, the officer could see that the trailer was smoke-filled and the smell of burnt marijuana coming from the trailer became even stronger. Johnson exited the trailer and came out to the porch. The police officers asked Johnson if they could enter his residence but Johnson refused. The officers informed Johnson that they would obtain a search warrant, whereupon Johnson crudely suggested that they do so, and immediately attempted to retreat indoors, when the police officers took hold of him to prevent him from re-entering where he might destroy evidence. Johnson resisted the officers’ attempt to restrain him. Following a scuffle, the officers subdued Johnson, placed him in handcuffs, and then conducted a protective sweep of Johnson’s trailer, looking into the rooms to ensure that there were no other occupants. Johnson was transported to the police station, where he provided a written statement admitting to the possession, use, and delivery of marijuana, and indicating that there was marijuana stored in the kitchen cabinet of his trailer.

Judge Allen wrote that it was not unreasonable, under these circumstances, for the officers to knock on the door, rather than wait outside for a search warrant, given that they were already standing in full view on the porch steps, together with their concern that the woman would alert the occupants of the trailer to their presence, and that the occupants would have the opportunity to dispose of the burning marijuana. Moreover, once the police officers knocked on the door, they did not immediately arrest Johnson or intrude into the trailer, but asked to enter, and complied when Johnson refused. Only when Johnson sought to retreat did the officers restrain him, simultaneously informing him that they needed to secure the trailer, pending a search warrant, out of fear that Johnson might destroy the burning marijuana.

The police officers’ restraint of Johnson occurred in response to the immediacy of the events rapidly unfolding before them. Given the officers’ belief that marijuana was actively burning in the residence, the officers had a legitimate concern that evidence would be destroyed if Johnson was allowed to re-enter, an exigency which justified their attempt to secure Johnson. Therefore, it was certainly reasonable for the officers to believe that Johnson might destroy any drugs inside the trailer, and otherwise act to frustrate the police investigation. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the officers’ restraint of Johnson was supported by both probable cause and exigent circumstances and reversed the lower court.

Raymond F. McHugh, Esquire of Feasterville represented the Appellee.

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