The Pa Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Petty, No. 1739 EDA 2016 (March 10, 2017), holding that the trial court erred when it suppressed the items found in Petty’s pants pocket because Petty did not physically possess the pants when officers found them.

Police, armed with a search warrant, searched a home in which Petty was a visitor. When police entered one of the bedrooms of the home, Petty was in bed with a female and without any clothes on. The officers ordered Petty to get up so, Petty reached for his pants which were lying on the floor within an arm’s reach. As he reached for his pants to get dressed, police told him to stop and he complied. Police then picked up the pants, and put their hands in the pockets to search for weapons. In doing so, they found packets of narcotics, as well as a black key holder, which was also searched and contained narcotics.

Petty was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver, conspiracy, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Petty filed a Motion to suppress the evidence found by police in his pants, arguing that drugs found in the pocket of his pants should be suppressed. The trial court granted Petty’s Motion and, the evidence was suppressed.

The Commonwealth appealed the trial court’s suppression of the drugs, emphasizing that police did not search Petty; rather, the Commonwealth argued that police searched the pants on the floor, which was proper because the search warrant granted the authority to search the entire house for contraband. The Commonwealth maintained that because Petty was not wearing the pants, the pants were a searchable container as a plausible repository for contraband. In other words, the pants were simply a container on the floor that could contain an object of the items to be searched for by the search warrant: drugs, money, weapons, or proceeds of the drug sales.

Here, police possessed a valid search warrant that was supported by an affidavit of probable cause. The Superior Court therefore began its analysis by reviewing the general standards applicable to the scope of a search when police possess a search warrant. The Superior Court noted that the United States Supreme Court has previously held that a valid search warrant authorizes the search of any container found on the premises that might contain the object of the search.

The Superior Court then reviewed applicable PA jurisprudence, noting that the PA Supreme Court has previously held that the police are not prohibited from searching a visitor’s personal property (not on the person) that is located on the premises in which a search warrant is being executed when that property is part of the general contents of the premises and is a plausible repository for the object of the search. Otherwise, it would be impossible for police to effectively search a premises where visitors are present because the police would not know which items belonged to occupants and which belonged to visitors, i.e. – which items, clothing and containers could be searched and which could not be searched. Accordingly, the Superior Court rejected Petty’s assertion that his jeans were not part of the content of the premises because police knew they belonged to him.

In summation, the Superior Court noted that there is a constitutional difference between the search of a visitor’s person and the search of a visitor’s personal property which is not on the person and is located on premises where a search warrant is being executed.

In applying the applicable law to the facts of Petty’s case, the Superior Court concluded that because Petty did not physically possess his pants when police officers found them, the police were therefore authorized to search them.


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