Scope of Search of Multi-Occupant Residence Where Warrant Based on Activity of Only One of the Occupants

Com. v.  Turpin, 2018 WL 831889 (Pa. Super. 2018) (unreported), appeal docket 45 MAP 2018, allocatur granted Aug. 21, 2018

Turpin shared a single-family townhouse with his roommate in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County. Police suspected Turpin’s roommate was dealing drugs and obtained a warrant to search the entire residence for, among other things, heroin and drug paraphernalia. On searching Turpin’s room they found 6 bags of heroin and a large quantity of cash.  Turpin was charged and thereafter moved to suppress, arguing among other things that the search warrant was overbroad, as he maintained the law did not permit the officers to search his bedroom based on a warrant involving his roommate’s activity. According to Turpin, his bedroom constituted a separate living unit. The trial court denied Turpin’s motion to suppress, Turpin was convicted and sentenced, and appealed to the Superior Court. Superior Court affirmed.

Superior Court first recited the “totality of circumstances” test for issuing a search warrant, quoting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:

Pursuant to the “totality of the circumstances” test set forth by the United States Supreme Court in [Illinois v.] Gates, [462 U.S. 213,] the task of an issuing authority is simply to make a practical, common-sense decision whether, given all of the circumstances set forth in the affidavit before him, including the ‘veracity’ and ‘basis of knowledge’ of persons supplying hearsay information, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place. Thus, the totality of the circumstances test “permits a balanced assessment of the relative weights of all the various indicia of reliability (and unreliability) attending an informant’s tip….” Gates, 462 U.S. at 234. It is the duty of a court reviewing an issuing authority’s probable cause determination to ensure that the magistrate had a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed. In so doing, the reviewing court must accord deference to the issuing authority’s probable cause determination, and must view the information offered to establish probable cause in a common-sense, non-technical manner.

Commonwealth v. Torres, 764 A.2d 532, 537-538 (Pa. 2001) (some citations and quotation marks omitted).

Slip Op. at 2.

Concluding that there was probable cause to search the residence, the court considered the issue of whether Turpin’s bedroom constituted a separate living unit the police were not authorized to search. Relying on Commonwealth v. Korn, 139 A.3d 249 (Pa. Super. 2016), where a similar issue arose in the context of a shared two bedroom apartment and the warrant similarly related to the defendant’s roommate but the police also searched defendant’s room, the Superior Court followed Korn’s reasoning that because the separate bedroom did not have a separate mailbox, address, or any private entrance, it was not a separate residence, and that the fact that the bedroom was locked was not persuasive:

The officers suspected Turpin’s roommate of dealing drugs out of the residence, a single-family townhouse. And a controlled buy confirmed their suspicion. There was no indication in the record that Turpin’s bedroom had a separate mailbox, address, or any private entrance. In fact, when asked at the suppression hearing what he does with his bedroom when he is not at home, Turpin testified, “I shut my door.” N.T., Suppression Hearing, 8/11/15, at 37. The officers had probable cause to search the entire residence for heroin.

Slip Op. at 9.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur, rephrasing the question presented as follows:

Does a search warrant for a multi-bedroom residence shared by adults permit police to search the entire residence and all bedrooms within, where the warrant and affidavit of probable cause are premised on the activity of only one occupant in that multi-occupant residence who does not have complete control over the private bedrooms of his roommates?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.