The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Torres, No. 2241 EDA 2015 (December 22, 2017), holding that because both Torres and the gun used in a shooting were recovered at the scene, probable cause did not exist – on the facts contained in the search warrant affidavit – to believe that connecting evidence would be found at Torres’ home.
Torres was sentenced to an aggregate term of 66 to 132 years’ imprisonment for assault of law enforcement officer, aggravated assault, simple assault, persons not to possess firearms, firearms not to be carried without a license, carrying firearms on public streets in Philadelphia, possessing instruments of crime (“PIC”), possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (“PWID”), and possession of drug paraphernalia.
His charges came about as a result of his shooting of a police officer while numerous officers were trying to take him into custody. The gun, a .45 cal Glock model 30, was ultimately taken from him by police during the struggle and, he was also taken into custody at the scene of the shooting. During the subsequent investigation, police obtained a search warrant to search Torres’ home, to search for “all ammunition or ballistics evidence consistent with a .45 cal Glock model 30, as well as any and all handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, gun storage boxes/containers, proof of identification, and any other items of evidentiary value.”

Torres filed a Motion to suppress the evidence seized at his home after the search warrant was served. The trial court denied that Motion, reasoning as follows:

The shooting of Officer Davies, which occurred mere blocks from Appellant’s residence, involved an illegally obtained firearm. Based on this information, police applied for a search warrant of Appellant’s residence. They sought to find further evidence linking this firearm to Appellant, such as ammunition, in their search. The search of the home led to significant evidence of a drug-dealing operation, which directly led to the search of the other vehicle, which was parked at the residence and also registered to Appellant.

Torres appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that “the affidavit in support of the search warrant for his home did not contain sufficient facts from which the issuing authority could find probable cause to search the home.” Specifically, because he and the gun were recovered at the scene, “there was not probable cause to believe that connecting evidence would be found at [his] home.” Furthermore, Torres maintained that the Commonwealth is required to establish a nexus between the crimes under investigation and the search proposed in the warrant and, in this case, failed to do so. The Superior Court agreed on both counts.

The Superior Court acknowledged that, generally speaking, “[p]robable cause to believe that a man has committed a crime does not necessarily give rise to probable cause to search his home.”

As referenced by the Superior Court, the warrant at issue sought “[h]andguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, gun storage boxes/containers, holsters, proof of identification, any items of evidentiary value.” However, the Superior Court concluded that it was “unclear how any of the items specified in the warrant were of any evidentiary value.” To support this conclusion, the Court noted that Torres’ identification was not in doubt and, police were already in possession of the firearm used in the shooting. “Said another way, there [was] no obvious nexus between the crimes under investigation and the proposed search.”

By way of further analysis of the nexus issue, the Superior Court looked to”Pennsylvania’s long-standing history of protecting its citizens’ privacy under Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution” and how it affords citizens of Pennsylvania greater protection that the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Court noted that “the purpose of Pennsylvania’s exclusionary rule is ‘quite distinct’ from that of the federal exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” What’s more, “probable cause is designed to protect us from unwarranted and even vindictive incursions upon our privacy. It insulates from dictatorial and tyrannical rule by the state, and preserves the concept of democracy that assures the freedom of its citizens. This concept is second to none in its importance in delineating the dignity of the individual living in a free society.”
After affirming that the right of privacy espoused in the Pennsylvania State Constitution “arose in part to keep citizens free from searches based upon generalized suspicions,” the Court also suggested that this was “precisely what” the Commonwealth was asking the Court to allow. “The Commonwealth’s rationale could permit a search of the home of any criminal suspect arrested for committing a crime with a gun, regardless of any particularized reason to believe evidence will be found there.” This, the Court concluded, would violate the Pennsylvania State Constitution and the Pennsylvanian Rules of Criminal Procedure. “Were we to hold otherwise, police could obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s home in virtually any case in which the suspect possessed or used a gun.”
Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that Torres’ challenge to the search of his home had merit and a new trial required.
DISCLAIMER – The information contained in this article is for general guidance on the subject matter only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information in this article. Case summaries are primarily excerpted directly from the decisions authored by the Courts. The decisions are cited and linked and the reader is encouraged to read the entire decision. Accordingly, the information in this article is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should NOT be used as a substitute for consultation with a McMahon Winters Soto-Ortiz Law Firm attorney. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should always consult with a McMahon Winters Soto-Ortiz Law Firm attorney.