May 20

Commonwealth v. C.L.

Commonwealth v. C.L.

C.L. was shot in the leg and taken to Temple hospital. Police interviewed him as they do with all victims, and C.L. indicated that he was walking down an alley in Kensington when he heard an argument followed by gunshots.

He stated that he was shot from behind but didn’t see who shot him. Police located the crime scene and concluded that a shootout had occurred due to the fact that there were different types of shell casings on opposite sides of the alley. A firearm soaked in blood was also recovered in the alley Detectives then seized C.L.’s clothing and cell phone from his possessions bag at the hospital. The DNA from the blood on C.L.’s clothes were tested against the blood on the gun and found to be a match. A search warrant on C.L.’s phone revealed that C.L. had been in the alley to facilitate a drug deal.

A search warrant was also secured to take a DNA swan from C.L., which matched the DNA on the clothes and the gun as well. C.L. was arrested for VUFA (illegal firearms) and Recklessly Endangering Another Person. Charges for Aggravated Assault were not filed because the Commonwealth could not disprove self-defense.

The defense filed a motion to suppress evidence (all DNA results and the contents of the phone) due to the fact that police failed to obtain a warrant for the search and seizure of the clothes and the phone from the hospital, and that all information contained in the search warrants were “fruit of the poisonous tree” and lacked independent probable cause.

The police had no reason to suspect that C.L. was criminally involved in the shooting- his statement to police was not contradicted by any of the physical evidence recovered from the scene, and there were no witnesses stating that C.L. was involved. Thus, no probable cause existed to seize the clothing or the phone. Even if probable cause did exist, caselaw required the detectives to get a warrant, unless “exigent circumstances”existed. The only exigent circumstance that has been recognized by the PA Courts is where the police search clothing of a victim at a hospital to ascertain identity. Here, the police knew who the victim was.

The assistant district attorney attempted to argue that a warrant was not needed because the clothes and phone were taken only to preserve potential evidence, and that they could search the phone because “many shootings are caused by drug disputes, and phones often contain evidence of drug dealing activities.”

This scary proposition, which could result in a slippery slope where all crime victims lose their privacy rights merely because they are unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was rejected by the judge, who ordered that all evidence connecting C.L. to the recovered firearm be suppressed. The case is dismissed and the charges for gun possession in Philadelphia were dropped.

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