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    Pennsylvania High Court Rules in Favor of Police in Phila. Drug/Gun Search & Seizure Case (January 2018)

    In a January 2018 case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court broadened the application of the collective knowledge doctrine, holding that there is no requirement that an officer who is making a warrantless arrest be specifically directed to do so by another officer who has actual knowledge of the facts forming the basis for probable cause. Rather, the individual knowledge of officers, who are acting in a coordinated investigation or in the same unit, team or agency, is now viewed collectively. See Commonwealth v. Yong, (PA Supreme Court, January 2018). Read more about the collective knowledge doctrine, aka fellow officer rule, in drug or gun cases in Philadelphia.

    The facts of the case are important because they establish what the Philadelphia Police Officers knew about the drug crimes being investigated. Defendant Yong was arrested after a 3 day surveillance of a home in Philadelphia. He was stopped, frisked and then arrested without a warrant by an officer during execution of a search warrant for the home. There was no evidence that another officer told the arresting officer to arrest or seize Yong. Let’s examine the specific facts of the Yong case.

    Comm. v. Yong – Drug Dealing & Gun Possession Charges After Surveillance

    Two Philadelphia Police Officers, A and B, were conducting surveillance of a home in North Philadelphia. Cop A saw his partner, Cop B, hand money to a confidential informant (CI) who then engaged in a purported drug transaction. The pre-recorded money was given to defendant Yong, who then gave it to co-defendant Vega. Vega gave the CI a small object. The CI then approached the officers and gave them 12 clear plastic bags which were field tested to be marijuana.  The next day (second day), Cop B resumed surveillance, but without Cop A. Cop B did not see defendant Yong during the surveillance. The second day’s work yielded 25 packets of marijuana which were turned over to Cop A.

    The next day (third day), Cop A, who wasn’t present on the second day, returned to the home under surveillance when he witnessed Cop C, acting undercover, provide money to co-defendant Vega. Cop A said he witnessed Vega walk over to a lot across the street, retrieve an object from the dirt and hand it to the undercover officer (Cop C). Defendant Yong was present in the front of the home, but was not observed to be involved with the transaction. Cop C then handed 8 packets of marijuana to Cop A.

    A team of 6-8 police officers went to the home to execute a search warrant. Cop A was in the group of officers. As they entered the home pursuant to a search warrant, Cop A was towards the back of the group, not one of the first officers to enter. Defendant Yong was in the living room. Another officer seized Yong, patted him down and recovered a revolver from Yong’s waistband. The officers searched a shed and found 100 bags of marijuana. Every bag recovered, even those from the first day of the surveillance, were stamped with the same money stamp on the outside of the bag.

    Yong was charged with a number of drug and gun offenses including possession with intent to deliver (PWID) a controlled substance, firearms not to be carried without a license, persons not to possess a firearm and conspiracy to commit PWID.

    Yong filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence found during the search. He argued that just because he was present at the home during the search did not justify a Terry (pat-down) frisk. He also argued that the Phila. Police Officers did not have probable cause to arrest him. During the suppression hearing, Cop A testified about the 3 days of surveillance and the execution of the search warrant. The trial court ruled against Yong and after a jury trial, Yong was found guilty of a firearms charge and conspiracy to commit PWID. He was sentenced to a term of 5-10 years in prison.

    After an appeal to the intermediate appeals court, the trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress was overturned. The prosecution appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which reversed the ruling of the lower appeals court.

    The Collective Knowledge Rule

    The issue Yong raised was simple – although Cop A had probable cause to arrest him, there was no evidence that the officer who actually performed the pat-down and arrest ever knew what Cop A knew. In other words, there was no evidence that Cop A instructed the arresting officer to perform the arrest when the search warrant was executed.

    The PA Supreme Court reversed the lower court after reviewing the history of the collective knowledge doctrine. Some courts applying the collective knowledge doctrine impute knowledge in the absence of an explicit direction to act or transfer of information so long as there is “some communication” among the officers and they are acting in a coordinated investigation. Actual direction or transfer of specific knowledge from one officer to another is not required. The PA court stated:

    “Accordingly, we maintain that Pennsylvania adheres to the vertical approach of the collective knowledge doctrine, which instructs that an officer with the requisite level of suspicion may direct another officer to act in his or her stead. However, where, as here, the arresting officer does not have the requisite knowledge and was not directed to so act, we hold the seizure is still constitutional where the investigating officer with probable cause or reasonable suspicion was working with the officer and would have inevitably and imminently ordered that the seizure be effectuated.” [internal citation omitted]

    Police officers and prosecutors shouldn’t rejoice just yet. There is a caveat to this rule. It doesn’t apply when the officers are not part of the same, coordinated effort. Two officers from different departments or from different agencies who happen to be investigating the same crime cannot use the rule to justify a warrantless arrest or stop/frisk without reasonable suspicion. The key is whether the officers were part of the same investigation, team or unit.

    Get more info about search and seizure law in Philadelphia drug/gun cases.

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