PA Supreme Court Stalemate On Good Faith Exception to Warrant Requirement

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ July 26, 2017

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s deadlock ruling essentially reiterates and emphasizes that the State Constitution’s strict protections against unlawful searches and seizures are absolute and without exception. A “deadlock” ruling is equivalent to a stand still or a non-ruling. As a result of a deadlock vote amongst justices, or a vote more commonly referred to as a “tie”, the lower court’s ruling will be upheld. The Court’s evenly split decision comes as a result of an appeal by the York County District Attorney’s office after a county Judge rendered a decision to suppress evidence retained via a search warrant at the home of an alleged drug dealer.

Upon receipt of a tip from a burglary suspect who named Lorne Hopkins, Jr. as his accomplice, officers obtained a search warrant for Hopkins’ home. The suspect did not know Hopkins’ name but instead provided an alleged nickname, “Radio”, and description. The suspect indicated that “Radio” was supposed to pay him for his participation in the burglary and was later able to pick Hopkins out of a lineup. In executing the search, officers found marijuana, a shotgun and crack cocaine at the residence. Notably, officers failed to find any evidence that Hopkins participated in the burglary.

Following the completion of the search and Hopkins’ arrest, the burglary suspect informed detectives that his tip had been untrue and that Hopkins had not been involved in the burglary. However, based on the discovery of marijuana, a gun, and crack cocaine at Hopkins’ home, Hopkins was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver- cocaine, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver- marijuana, and prohibited offensive weapons.

Hopkins filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the execution of the search warrant and argued that the only evidence supporting the warrant involved fabricated statements by the burglary suspect. Consequently, since the affidavit of probable cause was based upon a material fact that had been fabricated, the necessary probable cause to obtain and execute the warrant did not exist. The court agreed with Hopkins and granted his motion to suppress the evidence.

On appeal, York County argued that there was sufficient probable cause due to officers’ good faith reliance on statements made by the suspect regarding Hopkins’ involvement in the burglary.

In a dead-lock, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania wrote opinions in favor of the lower court’s ruling to suppress and in support of overturning the ruling. Judges in support of the lower court’s decision wrote an opinion stating that the good or bad faith of the officers was irrelevant, and that a warrant issued solely on the basis of false information means that there was no probable cause. Therefore, they determined that the execution of the warrant resulted in conduct that invaded Hopkins’ privacy . In the alternative, Chief Justice Saylor wrote on behalf of justices in favor of overturning the ruling to suppress. Saylor argued that the evidence should not have been suppressed because probable cause is not required to be based on true facts, only facts believed to be reasonable true.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s deadlock means that although the Court came in within one vote of a monumental change in the law, there is still no Good Faith Exception to the warrant requirement in Pennsylvania.

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