On July 19th, 2017, in Commonwealth v. Shabezz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that in an illegal seizure of a vehicle, passengers are entitled to suppression of evidence found in the course of the seizure. Such evidence is “barred outright as fruit of the poisonous tree” and there is no additional requirement for defendants to establish any reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle. This is a noteworthy decision because, until now, the Commonwealth has attempted to demand an additional showing by defendants that not only was the seizure of the vehicle illegal but also that defendants had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
In June of 2013, Saleem Shabezz was a passenger in one of two vehicles stopped in a Philadelphia parking lot, a location identified by the Narcotics Enforcement Team as a “hot area.” Upon officers indicating suspicious behavior, police seized the vehicles. Officers recovered drugs, paraphernalia, cash, and a gun. After Mr. Shabezz gave chase, he was quickly apprehended within a few blocks of the incident. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence because the vehicle was seized unconstitutionally; and thus, Defendant argued, the evidence obtained from the illegal seizure must be discarded.
Incident reports reflect only that officers surveilling the area noted a passenger, Mr. Shabezz, exited his vehicle, approached a different vehicle, and had a brief conversation with the driver. However, at the suppression hearing, an officer testified in detail of his observance of a hand to hand drug transaction between Mr. Shabezz and the driver of the other vehicle. The officer claimed to have viewed this interaction, which occurred in the dark of night, without binoculars from his location forty-five feet away. He also testified to recovering a bag of marijuana from plain sight on the center console of the vehicle.
Finding the testimony of the officer, which gave far more detail than the incident report was not credible, the trial court held that there was no constitutional basis to seize the car and thus the evidence against Mr. Shabezz was obtained illegally and must be suppressed. The Superior Court affirmed.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that “evidence derived from an illegal automobile search constitutes fruit of the poisonous tree as a result of the illegal seizure . . . and that no further demonstration of a privacy interest” is necessary. The court confirmed that evidence obtained via an illegal seizure is considered fruit of the poisonous tree and must be suppressed without any additional showing of a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Importantly, the court contrasted this case with a constitutional vehicle search case. “To be sure, if this were a vehicle search case, one in which the initial stop and seizure of the vehicle was constitutional, then the Commonwealth would be correct that Shabezz would have had to demonstrate an expectation of privacy in the areas of the vehicle searched in order to prove a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
In his concurring opinion, Justice Mundy limits the application of this per se rule to similar straightforward cases. He cautions that there is a potential for future cases to arise where the chain of events is more complex and will require more detailed analysis to determine if the evidence obtained is truly fruit of the poisonous tree. Nevertheless, it is now clear for comparable cases that evidence obtained through illegal seizures will not be accepted by the court.