PROBABLE CAUSE TO SEARCH APARTMENT ALSO PERMITS SEARCH OF INDIVIDUAL ROOMMATES’ ROOMS
The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Korn, No. 1528 MDA 2015 (May 25, 2016), holding that it was improper for the trial court to suppress evidence based on the conclusion that Korn’s bedroom was a “separate living unit” within the apartment for which a warrant had issued.
Trooper Guido of the PA State Police was conducting an investigation regarding the sale of controlled substances out of an apartment at 501 East Beaver Avenue in State College. Trooper Guido and a Confidential Informant made two controlled buys of Xanax from Mr. Murray, the first of which occurred in Mr. Murray’s bedroom in Apartment 201 at that location.
Based on evidence seized during these drug buys, Trooper Guido applied for a search warrant for the entire apartment. The description of the property to be searched by the warrant was listed as “The Phoenix Apartment Complex, 501 East Beaver Ave, Apt #201 located in State College Boro, Centre County.” According to Trooper Guido, the owner, occupant or possessor of this apartment was listed as “Aaron Murray,” because the Confidential Informant told him that Mr. Murray “was the only one that was supposed to be living there.” Until the execution of the search warrant he was unaware that Korn resided in Apartment 201.
State Troopers executed the Search Warrant and, upon entering the apartment, Trooper Guido stayed with Mr. Murray, while two other troopers checked the apartment for other occupants. At that time, Trooper Guido could hear knocking on a door at the end of a hallway and repeated saying, “Come out of the room, state police, we have a search warrant, get out of the room.” According to the trooper, after about five minutes, Korn opened the bedroom door, and “wanted to know what was going on.” When he was advised about the reasons for the troopers’ presence, Korn asked to see a copy of the search warrant, and the troopers complied. At that time, a trooper searched Korn and found several Xanax pills.
The search of the apartment then began in the bedroom that had been occupied by Korn. According to the Trooper Guido, Korn’s bedroom door was not marked in any way to distinguish it from the other bedroom. He did not recall a dead bolt or key lock on the door but testified the door was locked when first approached by the other troopers. During the search of Korn’s room, physical evidence was found, resulting in Korn being charged with simple possession and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.
Korn thereafter filed a Motion to Suppress the physical evidence obtained from the search of his bedroom in Apartment 201, located at The Phoenix Apartment Complex, in State College Boro, Centre County. The trial court granted Korn’s Motion to Suppress, finding that Apartment 201 of the Phoenix building contained more than one living unit, i.e. – separate living quarters for each of the individuals who resided there. Further, the trial court concluded that, despite the fact that Apartment 201 contained multiple living units, the warrant failed to describe the particular living unit that was to be searched so as to ensure the other living units, for which no probable cause existed, were not searched.
Whether the trial court properly granted Korn’s Motion to Suppress or whether the search of Korn’s room was constitutionally valid as part of the single-unit residence identified on the search warrant?
The Superior Court held that the trial court erred in suppressing the evidence found in Korn’s bedroom. The trial court’s ruling to suppress the evidence was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings.
The Superior Court first outlined the general rules pertaining to search warrants. The Rules of Criminal Procedure regarding Search Warrants include a particularity requirement: “Each search warrant shall be signed by the issuing authority and shall” . . . (c) name or describe with particularity the person or place to be searched.” These Rules are intended to proscribe general or exploratory searches by requiring that searches be directed only towards the specific items, persons, or places set forth in the warrant. A warrant must describe the place to be searched and the items to be seized with specificity, and the warrant must be supported by probable cause. The place to be searched must be described “precise enough to enable the executing officer to ascertain and identify, with reasonable effort the place intended, and where probable cause exists to support the search of area so designated a warrant will not fail for lack of particularity.”
In this case, the Superior Court noted that Trooper Guido testified without contradiction that Apartment 201 consisted of a regular, two-bedroom college apartment; he could not recall a dead bolt or a key entry to Korn’s bedroom. Further, there was no indication that Korn’s bedroom had a separate mailbox, address, or any private entrance. Based on those facts, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not apply “a practical, common-sense” approach when it concluded that the bedroom was a separate living unit and determined that the place to be searched was not specified with sufficient particularity in the search warrant.
In support of its conclusion, the Superior Court cited to Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and prior case law for the precedent that a search of the entire residence is not precluded where there is probable cause to believe that contraband is located within any particular room of a single living unit.
Thus, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court erred in suppressing the evidence found in Korn’s bedroom within Apartment 201, when precedent establishes that there was probable cause to search the entire apartment.
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