Superior Court Vacates a Conviction Based on the Denial of a Motion to Suppress Evidence

In Commonwealth v. Price, the Superior Court vacated a conviction based on the denial of a Motion to Suppress evidence. The ruling followed the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on similar facts in Commonwealth v. Hicks, 208 A3d 916 (Pa. 2019).

In Hicks, the Supreme Court held that because carrying a firearm is not an inherently illegal activity in Pennsylvania, there is no justification for the conclusion that the mere possession of a firearm, where it lawfully may be carried, is suggestive of criminal activity. The Court distinguished the scenario from one in which a police officer has prior knowledge that a specific individual is not permitted to carry a concealed firearm, or has articulable facts supporting reasonable suspicion that a firearm is being used or intended to be used in a criminal manner. The Hicks Court stated that the time of day and the individual’s location in a high crime area are factors relevant to the totality of the circumstances, but do not constitute a basis upon which to suspect that the person’s mere possession of a concealed firearm is unlawful.

In Price, the arresting officer testified that he received a radio broadcast, based on a 911 call, stating that a black male wearing a white T -shirt and grey shorts and driving a silver Lex us with a license plate reading “GWL8560” was located on the 5100 block of Willows Avenue and in possession of a firearm. The officer observed Price, whose sex, race, T -shirt color, and vehicle, aside from one digit on the license plate, matched the tip, in the location given by the tip, within a minute of receiving it. The officer then stopped and asked Price to get out of his vehicle. Once he did, the officers saw a bulge in Price’s waistband. One of the officers felt the bulge and found it felt like a hard metal object. Price was placed under arrest and the officers removed what turned out to be a gun from his waistband. A civilian witness then approached the officers after the arrest and told them she had called 911 because she observed Price put an item in the trunk of the vehicle and load bullets into a brown bag and place that item into the trunk of the vehicle. The officers then asked Price for permission to search the trunk of the vehicle. He agreed and the officers recovered ammunition for the weapon. The Commonwealth presented no other evidence regarding the contents of the 911 call or the radio broadcast.

The evidence presented by the Commonwealth established that the police were acting solely upon information that a person matching a certain description was located at a certain place within a high-crime area and was carrying a firearm. There was no evidence that the police had reason to believe that Price was carrying a firearm illegally or was engaged in any other illegal activity. Nor did the police observe Price do anything illegal before stopping him. Although the police were acting according to the law of the time, under Hicks, the police lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Price. The Court thus vacated Price’s judgment of sentence and reversed the trial court’s order denying the suppression motion.

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