Drug Charges in Philadelphia Dismissed After Motion to Suppress Granted

Outcome: As a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney, I frequently represent people charged with drug possession. Many times what makes or breaks a case is whether or not police violate my client’s constitutional rights. If a search is conducted without probable cause or without a warrant, oftentimes police violate one’s rights to privacy and the evidence recovered following the illegal search is not admissible at trial.

In this case, the Philadelphia Police Department’s Live Stop procedure was at odds with a Pennsylvania statute and it allowed me to successfully argue an illegal search. My motion to suppress drugs and money obtained during an unlawful inventory search was granted and all charges, including possession with intent to deliver, were dismissed. My client avoided nearly five years in jail based on the amount of drugs seized and his past criminal record.

Facts: My client was driving on 56th Street in Philadelphia when he turned onto Arch Street disregarding a stop sign. He was stopped by Philadelphia police who asked for his license and registration. Since my client’s license had been suspended, the officers informed him that they had to perform a live stop of the vehicle and called for a tow truck. Even though the vehicle was legally parked and was not causing any traffic disruption, the officers told my client his car had to be towed. Once police made that decision, they performed an inventory search, which is the procedure any time a vehicle is taken into police custody. During the inventory search, designed to protect police against later claims of theft or damage, police found a duffel bag in the car which contained 56 packets of cocaine and other drug paraphernalia. My client was placed under arrest and the police recovered a large sum of money from his pocket. Due to the amount of drugs and cash, he was charged with possession with intent to deliver under the theory that a drug user would not have this amount of drugs or money.

What is a Philadelphia Live Stop?

If a driver is pulled over by police and fails to provide a driver’s license or proof of vehicle registration, police have the right to immobilize the vehicle as it is illegal to drive without a license or proper registration. However, if the vehicle presents a threat to public safety (obstructing traffic, damaged vehicle, valuable items in plain view), then the police can have the vehicle towed and stored in an impound lot. If police determine that the vehicle has to be towed, then an inventory search must first be performed. If the vehicle only gets immobilized, the driver has 24 hours to present their license and registration to the appropriate judicial authority, which in Philadelphia would be a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge.

Live Stop Inventory Searches Problematic

The search of my client’s car was conducted in violation of his constitutional right to privacy under the state and federal constitution. The police did not follow the proper procedure for a live stop by failing to provide him the opportunity to contact someone to pick up his car or to immobilize the vehicle prior to conducting any search of the vehicle as it was not a threat to public safety. In theory, inventory searches exist, not to aid criminal investigations, but to protect the defendant’s possessions when they are taken into police custody. Police argue that inventory searches also protect them against later claims of theft of valuables or damage caused to the car while the car is in their custody. But in most cases, an inventory search is simply a pretext to search the car without probable cause or without a warrant and is therefore an unlawful search. The police may have a hunch that the person may be in possession of something illegal so they’ll use live stop and an inventory search as a way to get around the requirement for probable cause and a search warrant. But, since the officers don’t always know the law, they can easily violate one’s constitutional rights when conducting these searches. The search of my client’s person was also considered illegal under a theory of the “fruit of the poisonous tree”. Since police did not have the right to search his car and find the drugs, they did not have the right to arrest him and therefore to search him. The search of his person came from an illegal arrest as they had no right to search the car and therefore the money on him was also ordered suppressed. Once suppressed, those physical items could not be introduced at trial and the Commonwealth could therefore not prove their case.

Not All Live Stops Should End in Towing

The case law that supports my argument is Commonwealth v. Lagenella, a very similar case to this one. In Lagenella, the defendant was convicted of receiving stolen property and unlawful possession of a firearm, for which he was sentenced to 3 to 10 years of incarceration. During his trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence that was seized by police during a warrantless inventory search of his vehicle following a traffic stop. Lagenella properly claimed that his vehicle should not have been towed since it was not a threat to public safety, therefore making the inventory search uncovering the stolen property and firearm unconstitutional. His motion was denied by the trial court and he was therefore convicted and sentenced. He appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which agreed with the trial court. However, when the appeal reached the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, it was reversed. The Supreme Court held that the police were not authorized to tow and store a defendant’s vehicle if it was merely immobilized but safely parked, and therefore police did not have the authority to conduct a warrantless inventory search of the car.

Final Thoughts

If you are ever stopped by police, do not panic. Be respectful and cooperative with police. However, never consent or agree to allow them to search your car regardless of what they tell you. Had Lagenella or my client agreed or consented to the search of their car, they likely would have been convicted. While I understand, under certain circumstances, the need to tow a car, I strongly believe that the Live Stop program and subsequent inventory search should be illegal and removed from police procedures. It is clear to me that it is merely a pretext for police to violate individuals’ rights and go on a fishing expedition hoping to find illegal contraband. My guess is that police stop and search people’s cars all the time under the Live Stop program and if they don’t find anything, they simply release them and tell them to go get a license or get their registration updated. Only the cases where something illegal is found reach my desk and therefore there is no telling how many times this is done. If you have been arrested for drug or gun possession after a car stop, contact Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Brian Fishman of The Fishman Firm for a free consultation concerning your rights.