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Police Must Have Probable Cause that a Crime is Being Committed in Order to Seize a Vehicle While Waiting to Obtain a Search Warrant

Posted On: March 12, 2012 by Marc Neff

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trayvon Nmn Joseph, 34 A.3d 855, was an appeal from a Judgment of Sentence in the Court of Common Pleas. Joseph appealed his convictions for persons not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell, or transfer firearms, in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105(c)(2), and firearms not to be carried without a license, in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 6106(a)(1).

Appellant had been pulled over by a Pennsylvania State Trooper who claimed that there were four types of drug paraphernalia in appellant’s vehicle: (1) a number of air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror; (2) a small burlap bag of potpourri on the dash near an air vent; (3) bars of soap on the back seat; and (4) a wrapped “blunt” cigar on the passenger seat. After returning to his vehicle to write out a warning card for appellant, the trooper ran a record check and found that appellant had a “significant drug history,” including prior charges for possession and possession with intent to deliver. Based on this, the trooper told appellant he would detain the vehicle on the side of the road and apply for a warrant to search it. Defendant did not consent to a search, and left the scene with his car locked and running. The trooper called a tow truck to move appellant’s vehicle and when it arrived, conducted what he called an inventory search of the vehicle, discovering a loaded handgun under a jacket on the floor.

Appellant’s motion to suppress was denied by the trial court. The Appellate Court held that the trial court erred by ruling that the existence of reasonable suspicion justified the trooper’s seizure of appellant’s vehicle pending the submission of an application for a search warrant. The court held that the trial court erred in denying appellant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained from his vehicle after its seizure without probable cause as the officer’s seizure of his vehicle during the course of the traffic stop was impermissible because it was not constitutionally justified.

The court concluded that seizure of a vehicle for an indeterminate amount of time while the police attempt to obtain a search warrant cannot be constitutionally justified based upon mere reasonable suspicion.

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Posted in: Drug Crimes