Com. v. Gibson

Decision Date08 March 1994
Citation638 A.2d 203,536 Pa. 123
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Lora Kathryn GIBSON, Appellant. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Jennifer Beth SCAMELL, Appellant. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Cheryl Ann STOTSENBURG, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Curtis James Rogers, Asst. Dist. Atty., for appellee.



MONTEMURO, Senior Justice.

Appellants appeal from an order of the Superior Court affirming the judgment of sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County.

The sole question presented for our review is whether the police may make a warrantless entry into an apartment in the absence of any belief that illegal activity is being conducted, and, on the basis of information obtained thereafter, issue a citation for the summary offense of underage drinking.

The appellants are three students from East Stroudsburg University who were convicted in a non-jury trial for underage drinking. The charges arose when the East Stroudsburg Police Department investigated a party that was occurring in a second floor apartment at 316 Main Street in Stroudsburg. The appellants were not in that apartment, but were guests in a separate apartment on the first floor of 316 Main Street. No warrant was obtained to permit entry into any unit in the apartment building.

At the time the police arrived, the party in the second floor unit was already over. The police proceeded to the apartment on the first floor rented by Mr. Steven Fifoot where the appellants were guests. No loud noises were issuing from this apartment, nor were people coming in and out of the apartment. The police officers present had no personal knowledge of a party or underage drinking in the first floor apartment.

Chief Pansy of the East Stroudsburg Police Department knocked on the door of the first floor apartment which was answered by Mr. Fifoot. Chief Pansy maneuvered Mr. Fifoot into the foyer of the apartment where they engaged in a conversation. Mr. Fifoot never expressly consented to Chief Pansy's entrance into the apartment. Two other officers present maintained that they could see the appellants inside the apartment through the open door. While Mr. Fifoot was pre-occupied with Chief Pansy, the two other police officers entered the apartment, and began questioning the appellants. The appellants were brought out of the apartment one by one where uniformed officers conducted an investigation as to their age and whether they had been drinking alcohol.

On the basis of this investigation, the appellants were issued citations for the summary offense of underage drinking.

First, we hold that the present situation should be analyzed using the traditional Fourth Amendment search jurisprudence. The term "search" as applied to searches and seizures is an examination of an individual's house, buildings or person, for the purpose of discovering contraband or some evidence of guilt to be used in the prosecution of a criminal action. Commonwealth v. Anderson, 208 Pa.Super. 323, 222 A.2d 495 (1966). The police were clearly at the scene to investigate underage drinking and entered the apartment in question searching for evidence of underage drinking. The Superior Court rejected this analysis, and resolved the issue using the Fourth Amendment arrest jurisprudence. As an initial matter, there is no evidence that the police entered the apartment with the intention of arresting anyone, and, in fact, the appellants were not arrested. Instead, they were issued summary offense citations. Furthermore, even assuming the arrest jurisprudence was applicable, Superior Court's conclusion that the appellants had no remedy for an illegal arrest was erroneous.

It is true that the unlawfulness of an arrest does not affect the jurisdiction or power of a trial court to proceed in a criminal case, and an illegal arrest or detention does not void a subsequent conviction. See, Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 95 S.Ct. 854, 43 L.Ed.2d 54 (1975); Commonwealth v. Sudler, 496 Pa. 295, 436 A.2d 1376 (1981). However, the fact patterns presented in this line of cases are distinguishable from the present situation. The court in Sudler found that, "[t]he only fruit of the allegedly unlawful arrest which the appellant has identified is his person." Sudler, 496 Pa. at 304, 436 A.2d at 1380. These cases properly stand for the proposition that the defendant himself is not a suppressible fruit of an illegal arrest. Thus, where a defendant has been illegally arrested but has been prosecuted with evidence independent of the illegal arrest, the conviction will stand despite an illegal arrest.

Here, the appellants are not arguing that they themselves were suppressible fruits of an illegal arrest. Instead they argue that the police obtained evidence necessary to support the summary offense citations as a result of an illegal search. This evidence includes police observations as reflected in the officers' trial testimony, police questioning of the appellants and appellants' answers thereto, identification of the appellants as "underage" and physical evidence in the nature of alcohol seized by the police. Thus, the cases cited by the Superior Court supporting its holding that the appellants were without a remedy for an illegal arrest are inapposite, and an examination of this case using traditional Fourth Amendment search jurisprudence is appropriate.

Generally, a search or seizure carried out in a residence without a warrant is per se unreasonable. Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971). Only where the police can show that the search falls within one of a carefully defined set of exceptions based on exigent circumstances will a warrantless search be upheld. Id.

As an initial matter, it is undisputed that the police did not have a warrant to search the apartment where the appellants were issued citations. The Commonwealth argues that exigent circumstances were present to justify entry because the alcohol could have been easily disposed of, and the appellants could have dispersed in the time needed to obtain a warrant. The Commonwealth supports its assertion by citing to cases which have held that exigent circumstances were found to exist where cocaine was the evidence in question. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Frank, 413 Pa.Super. 273, 605 A.2d 356 (1992). Assuming the validity of this analogy 1, the Commonwealth must still demonstrate that the officers had probable cause to enter the apartment even under exigent circumstances. This we believe they have failed to do.

Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers' knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed. Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41, 87 S.Ct. 1873, 18 L.Ed.2d 1040 (1967). Suspicion is not a substitute for probable cause to conduct a valid search and seizure. Commonwealth v. Kelly, 487 Pa. 174, 409 A.2d 21 (1979). In the instant case, the officers present admitted having had no suspicion that a party was taking place at the lower apartment. (R.R. at 28). They did not see anyone coming in or leaving the apartment in question with containers of alcohol. (R.R. at 31a). The Commonwealth has failed to show that the officers present had facts or knowledge that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that underage drinking was occurring in the apartment when they entered. Mere suspicion that minors were consuming alcohol in this apartment because a party was reported elsewhere in the complex is not sufficient. Without a showing of probable cause, the Commonwealth cannot claim an exigency exception to the warrant requirement.

The remedy for an illegal search is an exclusion of all the evidence derived from the illegal search. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081 (1961). In this case, the observations of the police, including the identification of the appellants as underage, were fruits of the illegal search. Without this evidence, the citations issued to the appellants cannot stand and are reversed.

The Commonwealth argues that...

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53 cases
  • Com. v. Hoak
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • August 12, 1997
    ...could nonetheless be considered ineffective under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. See Commonwealth v. Gibson, 536 Pa. 123, 133, 638 A.2d 203, 207 (1994)(holding that consent to search was ineffective even though defendant was not seized at the time that police sought ......
  • Scott v. Pennsylvania Bd. of Probation and Parole
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court
    • November 30, 1995
    ...for consent to an otherwise illegal search to be valid, the consent must be unequivocal, specific and voluntary. Commonwealth v. Gibson, 536 Pa. 123, 638 A.2d 203 (1994). To be effective, a consent to search must be voluntarily given with a total absence of duress or coercion, express or im......
  • Jones v. City of Philadelphia
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court
    • January 25, 2006
    ...— dictated the Court's decision. Id. at 521-22, 738 A.2d at 430 (citations omitted). 27. The Court distinguished Commonwealth v. Gibson, 536 Pa. 123, 638 A.2d 203 (1994), because "there was no consent to even evaluate" and Commonwealth v. Melendez, 544 Pa. 323, 676 A.2d 226 (1996), because ......
  • Com. v. Blasioli
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • November 7, 1996
    ...60 L.Ed.2d 659 (1979). In order for the consent to be valid, it must be "unequivocal, specific, and voluntary." Commonwealth v. Gibson, 536 Pa. 123, 132, 638 A.2d 203, 207 (1994). The burden is upon the Commonwealth to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a valid consent was given by......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Just the Facts, Ma’am: Removing the Drama from Dna Dragnets
    • United States
    • University of North Carolina School of Law North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology No. 11-2009, January 2009
    • Invalid date
    ...of the crime involved and the circumstances attending the encounter." 154 Blasioli, 685 A.2d at 156 (quoting Commonwealth v. Gibson, 638 A.2d 203, 207 (Pa. 155 Id. at 157 (quoting Commonwealth v. Burgos, 299 A.2d 34, 37 (Pa. Super. 1972)). 156 Id. But see Gibson, 638 A.2d 203 (1994) (holdin......

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