Pennsylvania Judge: Shared Attic Not Searchable

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ January 11, 2014

On January 7 an Erie County, Pennsylvania Judge ruled in Commonwealth v. Baker that heroin found in an apartment attic shared by the apartment building tenants was not admissible in court, since the shared attic was not specifically mentioned in the search warrant. The Honorable Shad Connelly found that the search was not a mistake that would have been excusable under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987). In Garrison, police officers found drugs in the third floor of an apartment before they had realized that the third floor was actually divided into two apartments and that the drugs were found in the wrong apartment. Since the mistake was “objectively reasonable and understandable”, the evidence was not the fruit of an illegal search.

In Baker, however, the detective that found the heroin was aware or should have been aware that the attic was shared between tenants and was not part of the apartment as specified in the search warrant. When Detective Sergeant David Hudson was in the attic and before he found the heroin, he observed a front and back entrance to the attic, both of which led to a common hallway. Since neither entrance led to the apartment specified in the search warrant and Detective Sergeant Hudson had time to assess the layout of the attic in relation to the apartment, he should have known that the attic was shared and not searchable per the search warrant, and therefore his mistake was unreasonable. Because of this, Judge Connelly found the search to be a violation of Baker’s Fourth Amendment rights and granted his motion to suppress the evidence. Suppression of the evidence means that it may not be introduced or mentioned at trial, so presumably the Commonwealth is now deciding whether to withdraw the drug charges or appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

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