Com. v. Wright

Decision Date23 December 1999
Citation560 Pa. 34,742 A.2d 661
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Randolph W. WRIGHT, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Sidney Sokolsky, Norma Chase, Ecker, Ecker & Ecker, Pittsburgh, David Crowley, Centre County Public Defender's Office, for Randolph W. Wright.

Gregory Defloria, Asst. Dist. Atty., for Com.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN and SAYLOR, JJ.

OPINION

SAYLOR, Justice.

This case presents the issue of whether Section 2711(b) of the Crimes Code, which requires the seizure of weapons in certain cases involving domestic violence, authorized the warrantless search of Appellant's home.

On September 21, 1995, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Appellant, Randolph W. Wright, Sr. ("Wright"), returned to the mobile home he shared with his wife and their nine-year-old son. After entering his son's room, where he found his wife and son asleep in bed, Wright produced a nine-millimeter handgun, fired a shot over the bed, and forcibly removed his wife to the living room. There, Wright argued with his wife, placed the gun against his chin, and told her to pull the trigger. Wright then shot his wife in the head, causing a "glazing injury" to her parietal scalp and fracturing her skull. Upon seeing the injury to his mother, Wright's son telephoned the local emergency response number and reported the shooting.

At 11:55 p.m., two troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police received a radio dispatch for a shooting at the Wright residence. When the troopers arrived, they observed a spent nine-millimeter casing near a screen door on the side of the mobile home. The troopers announced themselves several times, were ultimately advised to "come in," and in response, ordered Wright out of the residence, placed him on the ground, and handcuffed him. Medical personnel were summoned, Wright's son was removed to a neighbor's house, and the scene was secured.

At approximately 1:04 a.m., on September 22, Wright was advised of his constitutional rights and questioned regarding the nature and location of the weapon used in the shooting. Wright responded that he had used a nine-millimeter Makarov, which was inside the mobile home. The police maintained the security of the scene until a third trooper arrived at 1:40 a.m. At that time, having obtained neither a search warrant nor the consent of Wright or his wife, troopers searched the residence. During the search, they discovered the Makarov and a .380-caliber pistol beneath the mattress of the bed in the master bedroom. The nine-millimeter handgun was loaded, with the hammer in a cocked position. Wright was charged with criminal attempt-homicide, 18 Pa.C.S. § 901; aggravated assault (two counts), 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702; and reckless endangerment (two counts), 18 Pa.C.S. § 2705.

Prior to trial, Wright filed a motion to suppress the firearms seized from his residence, claiming that the police should have obtained a search warrant. The suppression court denied the motion, finding that Section 2711(b) of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2711(b), requires the seizure of all weapons used by the defendant in the commission of the offense. Wright proceeded to a jury trial, arguing that he had not fired his gun into the wall over his son's bed, and that the injury to his wife was accidental, having occurred during the course of a struggle.1 Wright was convicted of all charges, except the offense of aggravated assault related to his son, and was subsequently sentenced to an aggregate prison term of five-and-one-half to eleven years and eleven months.

On appeal, a divided panel of the Superior Court affirmed in a memorandum decision. In the lead opinion, Judge Joyce reasoned that the search was justified pursuant to Section 2711(b), which requires the police to seize any weapons used in the commission of certain enumerated offenses involving domestic violence, and that the power to seize such weapons necessarily confers the right to search. Judge Joyce also concluded that the search was proper, because of exigent circumstances that required the troopers to remove the weapons from the residence to ensure the safety of the individuals who resided there. In a concurring opinion, Judge Olszewski maintained that a construction of Section 2711(b) that permits warrantless searches in domestic cases involving a weapon violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Nevertheless, Judge Olszewski agreed that the return of Wright's son to the residence in the future constituted an exigent circumstance justifying the warrantless search. Judge Kelly also concurred, stating his view that the warrantless search was permissible as incident to a lawful arrest. This Court allowed appeal to consider the propriety of the search and seizure.

Section 2711 provides, in relevant part, as follows:

(a) General rule.—A police officer shall have the same right of arrest without a warrant as in a felony whenever he has probable cause to believe the defendant has violated section 2504 (relating to involuntary manslaughter), 2701 (relating to simple assault), 2702(a)(3), (4) and (5) (relating to aggravated assault) or 2705 (relating to recklessly endangering another person) against his spouse or other person with whom he resides or has formerly resided although the offense did not take place in the presence of the police officer. A police officer may not arrest a person pursuant to this section without first observing recent physical injury to the victim or other corroborative evidence.

(b) Seizure of weapons.— The arresting police officer shall seize all weapons used by the defendant in the commission of the alleged events.

18 Pa.C.S. § 2711(a), (b). By requiring the police to seize weapons in certain cases involving domestic violence, Section 2711(b) makes mandatory what was previously permissive. In so doing, the statute serves to afford protection to victims of domestic violence by lessening the opportunity for future harm.

Nevertheless, an unavoidable tension exists between the government's interest in protecting victims of abuse and the reasonable expectation of privacy associated with one's place of dwelling, which derives from the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.2See generally Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14, 68 S.Ct. 367, 369, 92 L.Ed. 436 (1948)(stating that "[t]he right of officers to thrust themselves into a home is ... a grave concern, not only to the individual but to a society which chooses to dwell in reasonable security and freedom from surveillance"); see also Dorman v. United States, 435 F.2d 385, 389 (C.A.D.C.1970) ("[f]reedom from intrusion into the home or dwelling is the archetype of the privacy protection secured by the Fourth Amendment"), cited with approval in Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 587, 100 S.Ct. 1371, 1380, 63 L.Ed.2d 639 (1980). In furtherance of such privacy interests, searches conducted without prior approval by a judicial officer "are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 514, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967); see also Commonwealth v. Williams, 547 Pa. 577, 584-85, 692 A.2d 1031, 1034-35 (1997).

A plain reading of subsection (b) suggests only that an arresting officer is obligated to confiscate the weapons used in a domestic abuse situation; the terms of the statute do not purport to address the means that may be used in order to discover or locate such weapons. Moreover, to construe Section 2711(b) as authorizing warrantless searches whenever a weapon is implicated in a domestic violence case would, as noted by Judge Olszewski, create a new and categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. Because we are obliged to construe the enactments of the General Assembly in harmony with constitutional requirements, see 1 Pa.C.S. § 1922(3); Commonwealth v. McCoy, 405 Pa. 23, 30, 172 A.2d 795, 798 (1961), the more tenable reading of Section 2711 is that the provision requires the police to seize a weapon when the intrusion is otherwise permissible. We hold, therefore, that the seizure of a weapon pursuant to Section 2711(b) is subject to the limits of existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Apart from Section 2711(b), the Commonwealth contends that the search was justified pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. See generally Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392-93, 98 S.Ct. 2408, 2413, 57 L.Ed.2d 290 (1978). Alternatively, the search would be justified if conducted incident to Wright's lawful arrest. See Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 762-63, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 2040, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969).

It is widely recognized that situations involving the potential for imminent physical harm in the domestic context implicate exigencies that may justify limited police intrusion into a dwelling in order to remove an item of potential danger. Indeed, some courts have gone so far as to suggest that a report of domestic violence is sufficient, in and of itself, to warrant such an entry. See, e.g., State v. Greene, 162 Ariz. 431, 784 P.2d 257, 259 (1989); Commonwealth v. Rexach, 20 Mass.App. Ct. 919, 478 N.E.2d 744, 746 (1985)(recognizing the volatility inherent in domestic disturbances and thus permitting responding police to "use all reasonable means to prevent further abuse"). Other courts have remained more circumspect. See, e.g., State v. Gilbert, 24 Kan.App.2d 159, 942 P.2d 660, 664-66 (1997)(holding that objective manifestations of domestic violence can constitute exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless search of a residence by police, provided that the search is in direct relation to ensuring the welfare and protection of individuals who may be injured); State v. Younger, 305 N.J.Super. 250,...

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