Posted On: December 6, 2010

PA Supreme Court Finds Search of Woman’s Purse Unreasonable

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently reversed a decision by the Superior Court that a police officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a warrantless search of a woman’s handbag for safety reasons based solely on the fact that the owner of the handbag was located inside a residence where another individual had been selling drugs. The case arose from an incident where, after a drug sale outside of a house, police officers obtained consent to search the home. Inside, they saw the Appellant sitting on a sofa with her handbag next to her on the floor. The officer testified that she had searched the Appellant’s purse because she feared that it might contain a firearm, stating that “the drugs were coming out of the property. The boy had drugs on him, and drugs and guns go hand-in-hand.”

The Appellant was convicted in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, and appealed to the Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed the Court of Common Pleas decision and upheld the legality of the search, noting that the Appellant had a large bag, easily capable of holding a gun, and that, a few minutes prior to the search, a suspect had emerged from the house after selling drugs to a confidential informant. The majority opinion explained that “drugs and guns frequently go hand-in-hand”, and that “the officer had a right to conduct a minimally intrusive search for weapons in order to protect herself.”

Upon review by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the Superior Court’s decision was reversed. The Supreme Court’s opinion held that the police cannot frisk an individual for weapons unless the officer observes suspicious behavior or has prior knowledge of the individual’s criminal propensities. A protective search cannot be justified unless the officer can articulate facts that establish an individualized, objective basis for perceiving a threat of armed violence. An individual’s location, standing alone, does not provide sufficient grounds for a search, pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Courts cannot abandon the totality of the circumstances test and rely exclusively on the “preconceived” notion that certain types of criminals regularly carry weapons.

The Court explained that here, the officer conducted a protective search of the Appellant’s purse based on a generalization that firearms are commonly found in close proximity to illegal drugs; however, upon entering the house, the officer did not detect any unusual behavior or furtive movements on the Appellant’s part, nor did she observe a suspicious bulge in the Appellant’s purse. An officer must have a particularized, objective basis for a protective search; an individual’s mere proximity to others engaged in criminal activity is insufficient. Thus, the Court held that the contraband discovered in the Appellant’s handbag should have been suppressed, because the Commonwealth had failed to elicit any facts that supported an objectively reasonable belief that the Appellant was armed and dangerous.

All persons charged with crimes are entitled to the protections afforded by the United States Constitution. An experienced criminal defense attorney helps to ensure that a defendant’s rights are protected before, during and after a trial. If you have been charged with or convicted of a criminal offense, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately. For a confidential consultation, contact the Law Offices of Marc Neff at (215) 563-9800 or via email at marc@nefflawoffices.com.