Commonwealth v. Newton
2007 PA Super 409, ___A.2d___
Decided: Dec 31, 2007
Evidence was not admissible under the plain view doctrine when the officer entered a motel room to seize viewed evidence rather than monitoring the room until a warrant could be obtained.
Police officers in Wilkes-Barre were monitoring the Red Carpet Motel, which was known to police to be a high drug traffic area. The officers approached, the Defendant, Newton's room around 9:30 a.m. on February 5, 2005. They did so after they had stopped a woman who had exited the room who reported that Newton had sold her drugs. When they went to Newton's room the police conducted what is known as a "knock and talk" that Newton could have refused. During this initial questioning, the officers asked Newton to step into the hallway. When he complied, one of the officers recognized a measuring cup which appeared to be burned on the bottom and had a white substance caked on the side. The officer determined that this cup was used to heat cocaine. Newton was placed under arrest and taken to the police station. The other officer entered the room and seized the cup. The officer also asked Newton's companion for consent to search the room. He refused stating that the room was Newton's and any consent would have to come from him. Twenty minutes later the officer received a call that Newton had signed a written consent to a search of the room while at the police department.
Following the preliminary hearing, Newton filed a motion to suppress the measuring cup seized as the fruit of an illegal search. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that after viewing the container in the room, the officer possessed probable cause to seize the item pursuant to the plain view doctrine and arrest Newton. The case went to trial and Newton was convicted for possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to a term of 5 to 10 years. Newton filed a timely appeal of his conviction.
Newton argued on appeal that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress the physical evidence.
The Superior Court stated that the plain view doctrine, regardless of the circumstances under which it is applied, is not an exception to the warrant requirement. Plain view merely makes the requirement of a warrant unnecessary where circumstances demonstrate that a warrant has already been obtained or a valid exception to the warrant requirement is established because of exigent circumstances or because of consent.
The Superior Court held that under the plain view doctrine a law enforcement officer may seize an item where she views the item after entering a constitutionally protected space with consent or where the view occurs before she has physically entered the constitutionally protected area. The Court reasoned that when an officer is available to monitor the protected area to make sure that the evidence is not destroyed, he must do so until the warrant is obtained. The Court determined that the police officer did not act lawfully in seizing the drug paraphernalia at issue pursuant to the plain view doctrine. The consent was invalid and the officer could have waited for the warrant. The conviction was reversed and the case was remanded.