PA Supreme Court Issues Decision on Search Warrants- "Four Corners" Redefined?

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By Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC posted in Searches and Seizures on Thursday, July 11, 2013

When a fact in an affidavit is specifically challenged (as opposed to a generic, global challenge to the affidavit's sufficiency) the Commonwealth is permitted to call witnesses to go beyond its four corners.

By ** Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini**, Criminal Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

In a recent majority decision by the PA Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. DARRELL TYRONE JAMES, 34 WAP 2011 (May 29, 2013), the Court reversed the decision of the PA Superior Court, which held that the trial court improperly granted the suppression of evidence.

In 2007, police conducted a search of a residence based upon the issuance of a search warrant. Included in the probable cause affidavit provided by the police to the issuing authority (magisterial district judge) was the wording "[u]pon searching the garbage taken from the residence..." (emphasis added). The trial court initially reviewed the affidavit in addition to the testimony at a pre-trial suppression hearing. The court granted the Defendant's request to suppress any evidence seized as a result of the warrant issued based upon the illegally seized evidence. (See ** my prior blog on police searches and the protection of one's curtilage**). The trial court, however, granted reconsideration to take additional testimony. The officer testified that the garbage bag was not seized from the inside of the residence, but from outside the home's curtilage. The judge accepted the testimony and reversed its decision and denied suppression.

THE FOUR CORNERS RULE

Generally, the Rules of Criminal Procedure provide in Rule 203, that:

(B) No search warrant shall issue but upon probable cause supported by one or more affidavits sworn to before the issuing authority in person or using advanced communication technology. The issuing authority, in determining whether probable cause has been established, may not consider any evidence outside the affidavits.

(D) At any hearing on a motion for the return or suppression of evidence, or for suppression of the fruits of evidence, obtained pursuant to a search warrant, no evidence shall be admissible to establish probable cause other than the affidavits provided for in paragraph (B).

Here, the Court notes that "[t]he rule does not speak, however, to the evidence the suppression court may consider when a defendant challenges veracity or omission of facts in the affidavit, which is the situation before us." Therefore, the factual issue contained in the affidavit itself may be the subject of further testimony, expoundment, and cross-examination before a suppression court. The Defendant did not challenge the warrant's issuance. Had he done so, the "four corners" rule would have applied from Rule 203.

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