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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Michael Ramone Williams: Superior Court Upholds Warrantless Search Based on Exigent Circumstances and Search Incident to Arrest (October 24, 2023)

Town Law Publishing May 21, 2024

individual appearing unresponsive or intoxicated in a vehicleCommonwealth v. Williams, 2023 Pa. Super. 212 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2023)

Background of the Case

On August 24, 2020, police officers and medics were dispatched to the 1500 block of Barr Avenue in response to a report of an unresponsive male. Officer Nicholas Mollo arrived at the scene and found Michael Ramone Williams (Appellant) partially hanging out of a blue Dodge Durango with the driver's side door ajar. Officer Mollo observed several blue pill bottles and a large sum of money scattered near the vehicle. Appellant appeared highly intoxicated, motionless, and initially unresponsive. Upon awakening, his speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and he required assistance to stand. Officer Frank Scatena also arrived and helped with the situation.

Officers sought Appellant's identification but found none. Appellant consented to a search of his vehicle, during which officers discovered more pill bottles containing suspected marijuana and approximately $12,500 in cash. Additionally, a red backpack next to Appellant emanated the odor of raw marijuana. A subsequent search of the backpack revealed additional pill bottles with marijuana and a Glock 26 firearm. Appellant was found to have an outstanding warrant for a probation violation, and he was taken to the hospital for evaluation before being transported to Allegheny County Jail.

Williams was charged with possession of a firearm prohibited, carrying a firearm without a license, and public drunkenness. He filed a motion to suppress all physical evidence, which the suppression court denied on September 15, 2021. Following a non-jury trial on March 3, 2022, Williams was found guilty and sentenced to 4-8 years in prison, followed by 18 months of probation. Williams appealed, challenging the denial of his suppression motion.

Lower Court Ruling

The suppression hearing took place on September 15, 2021. The suppression court denied Appellant's motion to suppress without providing a detailed written order. The court's brief explanation cited Appellant's incapacitated state and the scattered pill bottles and cash as justifications for the search. The suppression judge noted that the officers were attempting to ascertain what was happening with an incapacitated individual and deemed the search reasonable under the circumstances.

The court found that the officers' primary objective was to identify the unresponsive individual for medical and safety reasons, justifying their search of the vehicle and backpack. The court held that the search was permissible under the exigent circumstances of the situation and the need to identify Appellant due to his medical condition.

 discovery of the firearm

Superior Court Ruling

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the lower court's decision, providing a comprehensive analysis of the legal principles involved. The court reviewed whether the officers' warrantless search of Appellant's backpack was justified under the Fourth Amendment and Pennsylvania Constitution.

Exigent Circumstances and Probable Cause

The Superior Court noted that warrantless searches are generally presumed unreasonable unless justified by an exception, such as exigent circumstances. Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances known to the officer warrant a prudent belief that an offense has been committed and the defendant is involved.

Citing Commonwealth v. Johnson, 969 A.2d 565 (Pa. Super. 2009), the court highlighted that exigent circumstances exist where prompt police action is imperative. In Johnson, a warrantless search of an unconscious shooting victim's clothing for identification was deemed reasonable due to the need to identify the victim and notify relatives. The court drew parallels between Johnson and the present case, where the officers faced an incapacitated individual, whose identification was necessary for medical and safety reasons.

Identification Search Justification

The court emphasized that the officers' testimony consistently indicated their intention to identify the unresponsive Appellant. Both officers testified about the importance of identifying an individual in medical distress and confirmed that they could not find any identification through consensual searches of the vehicle. Given Appellant's incapacitated state, the search of the backpack for identification was deemed legally permissible.

 discovery of the firearmSearch Incident to Arrest

Additionally, the court found the search justified as a search incident to arrest. This exception allows officers to search both the person arrested and the area within their immediate control to prevent the arrestee from obtaining a weapon or destroying evidence. The backpack, found next to Appellant, was searched immediately before he was transported to the hospital and subsequently arrested, making the search contemporaneous with the arrest.

The Superior Court concluded that the lower court properly applied the law to the facts. The search was justified under both the exigent circumstances for identification and the search incident to arrest exceptions. Therefore, the suppression court's denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed, and the judgment of sentence was upheld.


The Superior Court's decision in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Michael Ramone Williams underscores the importance of established legal principles governing warrantless searches and seizures. By affirming the trial court's denial of the suppression motion, the Superior Court highlighted the applicability of exigent circumstances and searches incident to arrest, as established in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 969 A.2d 565 (Pa. Super. 2009), and Commonwealth v. Simonson, 148 A.3d 792 (Pa. Super. 2016). The court reaffirmed that the need to identify an incapacitated individual can justify a warrantless search, drawing parallels to the rulings in Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006), and Vauss v. United States, 370 F.2d 250 (D.C. Cir. 1966). Additionally, the decision reiterated the permissible scope of searches incident to arrest, referencing Commonwealth v. Guzman, 612 A.2d 524 (Pa. Super. 1992), and Commonwealth v. Trenge, 451 A.2d 701 (Pa. Super. 1982). This case serves as a critical reminder of the nuanced application of Fourth Amendment protections and the circumstances under which warrantless searches are constitutionally valid. The Superior Court's affirmation of the judgment reflects a careful balance between individual rights and the practical needs of law enforcement.