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Pennsylvania court divided on firearms conviction

Recently, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania heard an interesting appeal involving the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The appeal involved a Pennsylvania man's 10-year sentence on theft and firearms charges, and whether the evidence used against him should have been suppressed.

In 2008, a Harrisburg Police officer pulled over the defendant for allegedly entering the flow of traffic from the curb without using a turn signal. When the officer pulled the defendant over, he noticed the vehicle did not have an emission inspection sticker and that the man's license to drive was suspended.

The officer gave the man two citations for the traffic violations, but informed the defendant that he would have to impound his vehicle. Police regulations required the officer to inventory the contents of the man's vehicle and to list all belongings valued at more than $5.

According to police testimony, while the officer was inventorying the vehicle's contents, he offered the defendant a jacket from the car because it was below freezing. However, he told the defendant that he would need to check the jacket for weapons. The officer patted the jacket and found an eyeglasses case, which, according to the officer, he opened with the defendants permission. Inside, he found what he believed to be drugs. He then placed the man under arrest and searched the rest of the vehicle.

The officer testified that he found a shotgun and a rifle in the vehicle's trunk. The defendant had previous felony convictions and was charged and convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and other charges.

On appeal, the Superior Court was divided 2-1 on the issue of whether the search of the defendant's trunk was reasonable. The majority ruled that the arresting officer acted reasonably and followed required police procedures by inventorying the vehicles contents. Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan dissented from that ruling, and believed that the officer conducted a search of the defendant's vehicle when the need for an inventory was not present. Therefore, she argued, the search was not reasonable.

If the defendant decides to appeal his conviction further, he will need to appeal the Superior Court's ruling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Source: Pennsylvania Law Weekly, "Court OKs Evidence Found During Vehicle Inventory," Zack Needles, 4/19/2011, retrieved via Westlaw.com (subscription)

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