Post-Trial Review of Suppression Rulings Cannot Take Into Account Evidence Presented at Trial But Not at the Suppression Hearing/ Definitions of Scope of Review and Standard of Review/ Footnotes Are Not Binding Precedent When Not Crucial to the Outcome of A Decision/ Retroactive Effect




In re: L.J., 28 EAP 2010, 10/30/13 (24 pages)

Police conducting narcotics surveillance observed one Glover  engage in a hand to hand drug transaction with a male who left the scene. Thereafter L.J. and one Turner approached Glover. They spoke with one another, Turner gave Glover money, who then gave Turner some items he removed from a baggie. Turner and L.J. left the area. One of the surveilling officers radioed for back-up to stop Turner. One of the officers who did so removed from L.J.’s purse what turned out to be 29 grams of crack.

L.J., tried as a juvenile, moved to suppress. The officer who seized the crack from L.J. did not appear for the suppression hearing.  The suppression court did not accept L.J.’s argument that a warrant was needed to search the purse or that there was no probable cause or reasonable suspicion to do so.  At trial, the officer who seized the purse testified that he asked to look at the purse so he could see if it contained weapons. When L.J.’s lawyer tried to ask the officer whether he obtained written consent to search, the court sustained an objection based on the question being relevant to suppression, but not L.J.’s guilt or innocence. L.J. was convicted of possession with intent to deliver. In L.J.’s Pa.R.App.Pro. 1925(b) statement, she raised the suppression issue. In its opinion finding no error, the trial court cited the trial testimony of the officer who searched the purse. The Superior Court relied on a footnote in Commonwealth v. Chacko,  459 A.2d 311 (Pa. 1983), for the proposition that a reviewing court can look beyond the suppression hearing to determine whether a search was justified, and affirmed on appeal.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocator on the issue of whether evidence from trial could be used to justify a pre-trial suppression ruling. The Court first discussed and accurately noted how many Pennsylvania appellate decisions improperly conflate standard and scope of review. Then, it resolved any confusion. “Scope of review,” the Court said, “’refers to the confines within which an appellate court must conduct its examination. In other words, it refers to the matters (or ‘what’) the appellate court is allowed to examine’” (citation omitted).” It continued, “In contrast, standard of review is the ‘degree of deference given by the reviewing court to the decision under review’” (citation omitted). It further stated:

Scope of review (or the “what”) may be divided into two components: the subject matter of the review, and the extent of the record that the appellate court consults when conducting that review. As for the subject matter, our scope of review is limited to the factual findings and legal conclusions of the suppression court. As for the record, we are limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party, and so much of the evidence of the non-prevailing party as remains when read in the context of the record as a whole.

(Citations omitted.) The Court then went on to consider whether an appellate court could consider whether a suppression ruling can be based upon evidence presented at trial, but not the suppression hearing.

The Court first found that the footnote in Chacko underlying the Superior Courr decision was not binding precedent, as by the footnote’s own terms (it qualified itself with the term “we note parenthetically”) it was not crucial to the decision, and therefore not binding precedent, but rather dicta. It also found no binding precedent from the United States Supreme Court allowing the use of trial testimony to bolster the pre-trial findings of a suppression court. Finally, relying on Pa.R.Crim.Pro. 581(J) and Pa.R.Juv.Pro. 350(D). that state that with one exception, suppression court rulings are final (these rules do allow a defendant to relitigate a suppression motion based upon previously unavailable evidence is revealed at trial.) Therefore, the appellate scope of review of a suppression ruling is the evidentiary record from the suppression hearing. The post-trial suppression ruling was therehore reversed.

However, in a portion of the opinion joined by only three Justices and with one more concurring in the result, the Court decided to give its ruling only prospective effect to this decision. Because the  Commonwealth may have relied upon Chacko, it remanded the matter for a new suppression hearing.

Image from Elite Daily, 8/12/13



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