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Trooper’s unsupported claim of “knowledge and experience” in search warrant affidavit was an “empty phrase that failed to tilt the scales toward probable cause.”

The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Randolph, No. 1246 MDA 2015 (November 16, 2016), holding that a Trooper’s unsupported claim of “knowledge and experience” upon which probable cause was based to obtain a search warrant was insufficient to support a finding of probable cause.

FACTS

Corporal Hanlon initiated a traffic stop of Randolph’s vehicle because the minivan’s windows contained an illegal tint and because he could not see the registration on the license plate. During the stop, Corporal Hanlon ran Randolph’s information and found that he had a prior drug trafficking conviction. After about twenty minutes, the corporal returned to Randolph’s vehicle and directed him to exit the van.

Corporal Hanlon, joined by that time by a second Trooper, advised Randolph that he was issuing a written warning and told Randolph that he was free to leave. Moments later, however, Corporal Hanlon asked whether he could ask Randolph additional questions about his trip. The corporal did not tell Randolph that he did not have to answer any further questions.

During the subsequent conversations between the Troopers, Randolph and Randolph’s passenger, the Troopers developed inconsistent information from Randolph and his passenger about their recent activities and destination.

Corporal Hanlon asked Randolph for consent to search the minivan, and Randolph consented. Randolph and the passenger were patted down and asked to stand in front of the vehicle. Randolph’s K-9, Draco, searched the vehicle but did not alert to anything. Corporal Hanlon and Trooper Rowland then searched the vehicle.

During their search, the Troopers observed a steel box extending downward from the floor that was welded to the vehicle. The box did not match the remainder of the undercarriage. Suspecting that the box contained drugs, Trooper Hanlon questioned Randolph about the box, and Randolph’s demeanor immediately became defensive. The corporal impounded the vehicle and obtained a warrant to search the compartment.

It took considerable effort to open the compartment which included an electronic door that required removal of the passenger door panel and auxiliary power to open. Inside the compartment were 550 grams of cocaine and a digital scale.

Randolph was convicted of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of an instrument of crime. He appealed from his aggregate judgment of sentence of 51⁄2-11 years’ imprisonment.

ISSUE

Whether the trial court properly denied Randolph’s motion to suppress the evidence that police seized from a box welded to his motor vehicle following a traffic stop?

HOLDING

Denial of the suppression was improper; judgment of sentence vacated; and, the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Superior Court Opinion.

REASONING

The Superior Court first concluded preliminarily that the initial stop was valid, a fact not contested by Randolph.

MERE ENCOUNTER or DETENTION?

The Superior Court next agreed with the trial court when it held that the traffic stop had devolved into a mere encounter when Corporal Hanlon told Randolph that he was free to leave. Therefore, Corporal Hanlon’s questions to Randolph after telling him that he was free to leave took place during a mere encounter, not a detention.

The Superior Court noted Corporal Hanlon observed several factors that gave him reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity was afoot. Randolph parked very close to the fog line, which Corporal Hanlon testified was a technique used by drug traffickers to discourage officers from approaching the driver side of the vehicle. Although Randolph was driving from Newark to Columbus, there were no suitcases or back seats in the vehicle, an odd circumstance for such a long trip. In addition, Randolph had a prior drug trafficking conviction. This combination of factors provided reasonable suspicion to detain Randolph and continue an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing.

VALID CONSENT?

Next, the Superior Court determined that Corporal Hanlon obtained valid consent from Randolph to search the vehicle at the scene of the traffic stop. In supporting this conclusion, the Superior Court noted that Corporal Hanlon’s interaction with Randolph had become a mere encounter, making further questioning permissible. Additionally, the Court concluded that the evidence demonstrated that during this mere encounter, Randolph gave voluntary consent to search his vehicle. Specifically, the encounter took place in an open location on a public highway in broad daylight; the questioning was not exceedingly long; the corporal’s questioning was not repetitive or deceptive in any way; there were no police abuses or aggressive tactics; and, the officers did not use threatening demeanor, physical contact or physical restraints anytime during the detention.

PROBABLE CAUSE?

The search was ultimately found to be unlawful, however, when the Superior Court concluded that Corporal Hanlon’s search warrant application failed to establish probable cause to search the box welded to the undercarriage of Randolph’s vehicle.

While acknowledging that it has a duty to examine search warrant applications through the lens of common sense and not in the manner of grudging, hyper technical perfectionists, the Superior Court nonetheless concluded that the Corporal Hanlon’s affidavit did not establish probable cause to search the box. Though not finding fault with Corporal Hanlon for becoming suspicious about the stop, those facts did not give rise to probable cause.

Most significantly, the Superior Court concluded that Corporal Hanlon’s averments relating to the hidden compartment were insufficient for two reasons. First, the police dog, Draco, did not alert when it sniffed the area in which Corporal Hanlon subsequently discovered the compartment. Second, Corporal Hanlon failed to explain how his “training and experience” led him to recognize that the compartment was “commonly used to transport guns, drugs and U.S. currency.”

The Court concluded that such a  claim of “knowledge and experience” under the circumstances was an empty phrase that failed to tilt the scales toward probable cause. The failure to state the knowledge, training or experience that he had that reasonably indicated that the hidden compartment was used to store criminal contraband only gave rise to suspicion of criminal activity, not probable cause.

Lastly, although a general consent might also permit opening a closed container by unscrewing several screws from its cover without causing structural damage, the Superior Court did not think it reasonable to conclude that Randolph’s general consent extended to a hidden compartment that he kept locked and concealed from view, requiring the removal of the passenger door panel and auxiliary power through wires

LINK TO CASE:

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A09026-16o%20-%2010288621114248081.pdf?cb=1

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