Commonwealth v. Hamlin

Decision Date28 December 1983
Docket Number40 W.D. 1983.
Citation503 Pa. 210,469 A.2d 137
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Roy L. HAMLIN, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Argued Sept. 13, 1983.

Robert L. Simmons, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Robert E. Colville, Dist. Atty., Robert L. Eberhardt, Deputy Dist Atty., Melinda G. Tell, Asst. Dist. Atty., Pittsburgh, for appellee.



McDERMOTT Justice.

This is an appeal from the order of the Superior Court, reversing an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County suppressing evidence obtained in a search of appellant's residence. [1] After examination of appellant's claim we affirm.

The facts are as follows. On the morning of September 5, 1980, Lieutenant Charles E. Coughlin of the McKeesport Police Department prepared an application for a search warrant for the premises of appellant, Roy L. Hamlin. The probable cause relied upon in securing the warrant was testimony from neighbors that ten (10) to twenty (20) persons visited the residence on a daily basis and only stayed for a short period of time. Later that same day at approximately 1:30 p.m. the application was taken to the district magistrate. The warrant was then approved and the date of issuance was recorded as September 6, at 8:00 a.m. This date and time started the forty-eight (48) hour period during which the search warrant had to be executed. See Pa.R.Crim.Pro. 2005. [2] The search was scheduled to take place at 7:00 a.m. on September 6. The police arrived at appellant's residence at 7:45 a.m. on that same date. Lieutenant Coughlin knocked on the exterior door of the complex in which appellant lived. Receiving no response Lieutenant Coughlin proceeded into the main building and knocked on appellant's door. After continued knocking and unanswered requests to have appellant open the door Lieutenant Coughlin used a key supplied by the landlord to gain access. Appellant and a Ms. Dreher (co-defendant) were in the room. Lieutenant Coughlin identified himself and provided appellant with a copy of the warrant. A search of the premises resulted in the seizure of a quantity of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia. The occupants were arrested. Appellant and co-defendant filed joint omnibus pre-trial motions to suppress the seized evidence.

On March 25, 1981, the Commonwealth proceeded to a suppression hearing on the co-defendant's motion. After receiving testimony from both Lieutenant Coughlin and Howard Lindberg, the issuing magistrate, the suppression court granted the motion to suppress. Judge Louik, the suppression court judge, stated at the hearing that he was not finding that the error was done purposely, but nevertheless, given the improper execution of the warrant, he was going to grant defendant's suppression motion (S.T. 39-42). The Commonwealth appealed. On appeal the Superior Court, in a two to one decision, rejected the findings of the lower court and reversed, holding that the misdating was a mistake which did not prejudice appellant. Appellant herein petitioned this Court for appeal and we granted allocatur.

In this appeal the following issues are raised: whether the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the appeal, since it did not raise a pure question of law; whether the Superior Court impermissibly substituted its own findings of fact for that of the suppression court; and, whether the Commonwealth's failure to appeal the suppression court's finding of insufficient probable cause in appellant's co-defendant's case precluded the Commonwealth from challenging the suppression court decision in the instant case.

Appellant erroneously contends that the Superior Court should have been precluded from exercising jurisdiction over the Commonwealth appeal. It is well settled that when a motion to suppress is granted, and when the appellant asserts in good faith that it substantially handicaps or effectively terminates the prosecution for lack of evidence, the Commonwealth has the right to appeal the suppression order. Commonwealth v. Bosurgi, 411 Pa. 56, 190 A.2d 304 (1963). In the instant case that is precisely what the suppression order accomplished. However, the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and the concomitant right of the Commonwealth to appeal a suppression court's ruling is limited to pure questions of law. See Commonwealth v. Swint, 256 Pa.Super. 169, 389 A.2d 654 (1978); Commonwealth v. Chinea, 246 Pa.Super. 494, 371 A.2d 944 (1977).

Appellant's second contention is that in reversing the decision of the suppression court, the Superior Court was clearly usurping the role of the trial court as fact finder. The well established judicial principle is that in reviewing a suppression court's ruling the appellate court is bound by factual findings supported by the record. Commonwealth v. Wiggins, 472 Pa. 95, 371 A.2d 207 (1977); and, they may not substitute their own findings for those of the suppression court. Commonwealth v. Davis, 491 Pa. 363, 421 A.2d 179 (1980). This principle of deference to trial courts has one important caveat however, appellate courts are not bound by findings wholly lacking in evidence. Commonwealth v. Hall, 475 Pa. 482, 380 A.2d 1238 (1977).

The Superior Court in reviewing the testimony of the issuing magistrate did not find support in the record to justify Judge Louik's determination that the "issuing magistrate ... appears to have purposely post-dated the search warrant." (Suppression Court Opinion at 1.) And we agree. It is important to note at this juncture that Judge Louik stated at the suppression hearing that "[he was] not saying that this [misdating] was done purposely." (S.T. 39.)

No additional findings were made between the time of the suppression hearing and the issuing of the Suppression Opinion to lead Judge Louik to the conclusion that the misdating was a deliberate act. While we are reluctant to undermine a determination of fact found by a lower court, we must do so when the finding is not supported by the record. Commonwealth v. Hall, supra. In the instant case we adopt Judge Louik's finding stated in the record that the mistake was not deliberate.

Though the standard of review used by the Superior Court in reversing the decision of the suppression court was not specifically raised by appellant, we feel it warrants our attention. The standard applied by the Superior Court was set forth in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 467 Pa. 146, 354 A.2d 886 (1976).

In reviewing the ruling of the suppression court our initial task is to determine whether the factual findings are supported by the record. In making this determination, we are to consider only the evidence of the prosecution's witnesses and so much of the evidence for the defense as fairly read in the context of the record as a whole, remains uncontradicted. Commonwealth v. Goodwin, 460 Pa. 516, 522-23, 333 A.2d 892, 895 (1975).

Id. at 151-152, 354 A.2d at 889.

This standard was applied where a defendant was appealing the adverse ruling of a suppression court. Here the Commonwealth is appealing the decision of the suppression court. Accordingly, they should be required to meet the same burden as a defendant who has lost below. Thus, where the Commonwealth is appealing the adverse decision of a suppression court, a reviewing court must consider only the evidence of the defendant's witnesses and so much of the evidence for the prosecution as read in the context of the record as a whole remains uncontradicted. To hold otherwise would make a mockery of the suppression court and place an impossible burden on every defendant regardless of his success or failure at the suppression hearing.

Application of this standard in the instant case, however, would not result in a decision contrary to that of the Superior Court. The defendant offered no testimony at the suppression hearing and the Commonwealth's uncontradicted testimony at the suppression hearing was as follows: Lt. Coughlin of the McKeesport Police Department prepared a search warrant for appellant's residence on September 5, 1980, and it was issued that same day at 2:00 p.m. The defense pointed out that on the face of the warrant the date of issuance was September 6, 1980, at 8:00. The issuing magistrate testified that the error was made because the police informed him that they were going to conduct the search at that time (September 6) and he inadvertently put that date on the warrant. (S.T. at 24.) The magistrate further testified that he knew he signed the warrant on September 5, 1980, because that was a Friday, and he is rarely assigned on Saturdays. (S.T. at 24) The Superior Court did not feel this testimony supported a finding of purposeful misdating on the part of the magistrate. We agree.

Having made the preceding determination we now must consider whether the misdating will prove fatal to the warrant. Pa.R.Crim.P. 2005 "requires that a search warrant...

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