Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Rejects Good Faith Exception

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ March 7, 2014

On February 18, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 2014 WL 619896, that under Pennsylvania jurisprudence and its own decision in Commonwealth v. Edmunds, 586 A.2d 887 (Pa. 1991), the good faith exception does not apply to the fruits of defective arrest warrants.

In Johnson, defendant Richard Johnson was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over in Wilkes-Barre by State Trooper James Knott. Knott had previously received a radio transmission that the vehicle Johnson was in had been involved in a drug transaction and pulled the vehicle over for a broken taillight. Knott requested information about Johnson through his computer, which showed that there was a warrant out for Johnson’s arrest. Knott arrested Johnson and discovered heroin on his person, and later Johnson told Knott that he is a drug dealer. The problem, however, was that the arrest warrant for Johnson had expired and was no longer valid, as it had been served on him nine days earlier.

Before the trial court, Johnson moved to suppress the physical evidence and the statements he made, arguing that since the warrant was expired, the search was unconstitutional pursuant to both the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Specifically, he argued that Edmunds made clear that per Article I, Section 8, Pennsylvania does not recognize a good faith exception to evidence gathered from an invalid warrant. The good faith exception, which exists in federal criminal law and in other jurisdictions, allows for the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence that is the fruit of an invalid warrant if the officer acted in good faith and reasonably believed that the warrant was valid. The trial court suppressed both the physical evidence and Johnson’s statements. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision regarding the physical evidence but reversed its decision regarding the statements. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Commonwealth argued that, notwithstanding Edmunds, the Court’s own decision in Commonwealth v. Smith, 995 A.2d 1143 (2010) was applicable and that the physical evidence should not have been suppressed. In Smith, the Court found that the defendant’s statements that were made after being arrested pursuant to an expired search warrant were admissible, since the statements were so attenuated from the arrest and the search to be considered voluntary. Johnson argued, and the Court agreed, that Smith was not controlling (nor even relevant) here, as Smith dealt with exclusively federal law and not the Pennsylvania Constitution, and Smith involved the attenuation and voluntariness of statements, which were not at issue before the Court in Johnson. As such, the Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision, holding that Edmunds controls.

One thing interesting about this case is that the majority essentially instructed the Commonwealth how to properly argue this issue should it come up again. The Chief Justice impliedly encouraged the Commonwealth to argue an exception to Edmunds, in which the Supreme Court in 1991 used a four-factor balancing test dubbed the “Edmunds analysis” to determine whether the good faith exception applied. The Commonwealth did not argue Johnson pursuant to the Edmunds analysis, and Chief Justice Castille hinted that they might have had better luck arguing it that way.

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