Trial Court Errs Suppressing Evidence Obtained After Search Warrant Expiration

In Commonwealth v. Bowens, 2020, Pa. Super 9 (2020), our Superior Court concluded the trial court erred in failing to suppress the evidence obtained from Appellant’s cell phone after a search warrant had expired. In addition, the Court concluded as a matter of law that the Commonwealth failed to prove that Appellant constructively possessed the items found in the locked glove box.

Bowens was charged with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, receiving stolen property, firearms not to be carried without a license and possession of drug paraphemalia. He challenged the denial of his Motion to Suppress the use at trial of information obtained from his cell phone, contending that because the search warrant expired four days before the data was extracted, the search was “functionally warrantless” and the trial court should have suppressed the evidence. The Superior Court agreed.

Pennsylvania. Rule of Criminal Procedure 205 (A)( 4) requires that the authority issuing the search warrant direct that the search be conducted within a specified period oftime. This rule does not provide any exceptions to the requirement that the search be conducted within the period of time mandated by the search warrant. Failure to adhere to that time-limitation in conducting the search rises to the level of a federal constitutional violation.

The Court had previously held that accessing any information from a cell phone without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Relying on the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, 573 U.S. 373 (2014), our Supreme Court observed, “that in the absence of an applicable exception, any search of a cell phone requires a warrant. This is because, like one’s home, an individual’s expectation of privacy is in the cell phone itself, not in each and every piece of information stored therein.”

Where a search occurs without a warrant, the evidence obtained therefrom must be excluded, unless the evidence was obtained under one of the exceptions to warrant requirements. Because there were no applicable exceptions to the exclusionary rule, the trial court determined that the police officer improperly conducted the search without a warrant. However, the trial court wrongly concluded that the error was harmless.

The Superior Court found that since the evidence from the cell phone extraction was the only evidence the Commonwealth presented to support its conspiracy charge that the error of admitting the evidence prejudiced Bowens and the prejudice was significant. Therefore, they concluded that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence extracted from the cell phone.

Bowens next asserted that the Commonwealth failed to provide sufficient evidence of possession to support his convictions of the drug and firearms offenses. He contended that, because police officers recovered no drugs, drug paraphernalia, or firearms from his person, and he did not have access to the contents of the locked glove box where the contraband was found, the Commonwealth failed to prove the essential element of possession and therefore, each of his convictions in which possession is an element should be vacated. The Court agreed.

To convict a person ofPWID, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person possessed a controlled substance with the intent to deliver it without legal authorization to do so. When an individual is found guilty of possessing contraband which was not found on his person, the Commonwealth is required to prove that he had constructive possession or joint constructive possession of the contraband. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court defines constructive possession as conscious dominion, which is the power to control the contraband and the intent to exercise that control. However, a person’s presence in a place where the drugs are found, standing alone, will not establish constructive possession.

The trial court’s speculation and conjecture that Bowens could have asked his codefendant for the key to the glove box was not sufficient proof that Bowens had dominion and control over the contraband. The Commonwealth was required to provide evidence that Appellant had dominion and control over the contraband in the locked glove box. However, as the investigating officer testified, the key to the locked glove box was “secreted” in Bowen’s codefendant’s sweatshirt. The Commonwealth did not provide any evidence that Bowens had access to the key or control over that contraband. Rather, the Commonwealth proved only Bowens’ mere presence in the vehicle at the time of the traffic stop, which was insufficient to sustain his convictions.

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