Williamsport man getting a retrial on drug charges
By PHIL RAY
ALTOONA –The August 2017 conviction of a Williamsport man for drug offenses that occurred in Blair County has been vacated and sent back for retrial based on a new Fourth Amendment standard established earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unwarranted search and seizure by law enforcement.
The case before the Superior Court involved 30-year-old William Daniel Brown, Jr., who is presently housed in a State Correctional Institution in Frackville, serving a 30-60 months sentence imposed by Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron following Brown’s conviction on charges of the possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Brown, through Blair County Assistant Public Defender David L. Beyer, contended the entry into a home on the 2600 block of Sixth Avenue on June 7, 2016, by state parole authorities in search of Brown was illegal.
One of the occupants of the home who answered the door indicated to the agents that Brown was in the upstairs area of the home.
The agents were attempting to serve an administrative order charging Brown with violating his parole supervision and they were able to locate him in the attic of the home.
In scanning the attic, the agents saw “in plain view” a plate containing a powdery substance, baggies and a cutting tool.
After taking Brown into custody, the agents summoned city police and, using a search warrant, confiscated 103 packets of heroin, the plate, $736, and packaging material.
Milliron during a pretrial hearing refused to toss out the evidence based on the alleged illegal entry.
The conviction and sentence were appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and on Monday a three-judge panel reported that the state Supreme Court earlier this year had revised the standard for law enforcement entry into a residence and that the the entry into the home and subsequent discovery of the evidence used against Brown was illegal.
The appeals court opinion written by Judge Jack A. Panella concluded, “Therefore. because we find no evidence of consent to justify the parole officers’ unlawful entry into the residence, the evidence recovered during the subsequent search must be suppressed.”
Judges Anne E. Lazarus and Mary P. Murray joined in the opinion. According to the facts of the case, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole in September 2015 had taken administrative action against Brown for failing to comply with the terms of his supervision.
It wasn’t until the next June that parole agents received a “tip” from Blair County Children Youth and Families that Brown was in the Sixth Avenue home.
When a female occupant of the home answered the agent’s knock on the front door, she was told, “We’re coming in; we’re looking for Brown.”
Under prior Superior Court rulings, the agents’ “reasonable belief” (whether true of not) that Brown was inside justified the entry and search.
In April however, the state Supreme Court, in an opinion entitled Commonwealth v. Romero, a Philadelphia case, rejected the reasonable-belief standard and ruled that entry into and searches of homes must first be reviewed by magisterial district judges to determine if there is probable cause that the individual or evidence being sought is in the dwelling.
The “administrative action,” which in the Brown case served as a warrant for his arrest, had not been reviewed by a magistrate, and did not contain an address for the search.
It was based only on a “tip” that Brown was living in the home and was selling drugs there.
Also, the Superior Court pointed out, the young woman who answered the door did not give her permission for the entry.
She was told only, “We’re coming in….” by the agents.
Explaining the Supreme Court decision, the Panella opinion stated, “The Court observed that the Fourth Amendment protects the privacy interests in all homes, and, absent consent or exigent circumstances, to overcome that privacy interest, a warrant used to enter a home must reflect a magisterial determination of probable cause to believe the legitimate object of a search is contained therein.”
Beyer, who represented Brown, said the decision to vacate the sentence and return teh case to Blair County for a new trial was a good one because it protects the rights of all citizens, not just Brown, from illegal searches.
He agreed with the Superior Court there needs to be oversight concerning law enforcement entry into homes.
Searches based on tips are “dangerous,” he said.
The assistant public defender said he felt strongly about the way the search was conducted in the Brown case and he said he didn’t think the case could be retried in view of the suppression of the evidence granted by the Superior Court. The Blair County District Attorney could not be reached for comment.