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Commonwealth v. Cartagena (2013): Superior Court Sets Precedent by Suppressing Gun Evidence from Warrantless Search

Town Law Publishing June 24, 2024

police officerCOMMONWEALTH v. CARTAGENA (2013)

Docket No: No. 2628 EDA 2010.

Decided: January 23, 2013

Court: Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

Background of the Case

On September 20, 2009, at approximately 1:50 a.m., Officer Michael Johncola and his partner, Officer Glebowski, stopped Jamie Cartagena, who was driving a dark blue Chevrolet Suburban with heavily tinted windows, a violation of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4524(e)(1). The officers initiated the stop by activating their lights, and Cartagena pulled over in the center breakdown lane of Lehigh Avenue. The windows were so tinted that the officers could not see inside the vehicle even with the use of a flashlight. Cartagena, who appeared extremely nervous and tripped over his words, initially hesitated but eventually complied with the officers’ request to lower the windows. During the stop, Cartagena opened and then closed the center console, appearing stunned, before retrieving his registration and proof of insurance from the glove box. After providing the requested paperwork, Cartagena was asked to step out of the vehicle due to his nervousness. Officer Glebowski conducted a pat-down search of Cartagena, which revealed no weapons or contraband, while Officer Johncola performed a "courtesy search" of the driver's seat and center console, finding a loaded .32 caliber gun with an obliterated serial number.

Cartagena was issued a citation for the tinted windows and charged with several violations of the Uniform Firearms Act. On January 8, 2010, Cartagena filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing that the police conducted the warrantless search of his vehicle without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The suppression court held a hearing on August 18, 2010, and Officer Johncola was the sole witness.

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Lower Court Ruling

The Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, granted Cartagena's motion to suppress on August 18, 2010. The suppression court concluded that the search of the center console was unlawful and violated Cartagena's rights, as the police lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. The court found no exigent circumstances that justified the search without a warrant. As a result, the court suppressed the firearm found in the center console.

The Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal on September 17, 2010, arguing that the suppression court erred in its decision. The Commonwealth asserted that the police had reasonable suspicion to conduct a protective sweep of the vehicle given Cartagena's nervousness and initial hesitation to lower his tinted windows.

Superior Court Ruling

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reviewed the suppression court’s decision to grant Cartagena’s motion to suppress the firearm found in his vehicle. The court employed the standard of determining whether the record supported the suppression court's factual findings and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those findings were appropriate.

The Superior Court referenced the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Michigan v. Long (463 U.S. 1032 (1983)), which applied the principles from Terry v. Ohio (392 U.S. 1 (1968)) to a vehicle search. In Long, the Supreme Court held that a protective search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle is permissible if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that the suspect is dangerous and might gain immediate control of weapons. The court emphasized that the sole justification for such a search is the protection of police officers and others nearby, not to prevent the disappearance or destruction of evidence.

In its analysis, the Superior Court also considered Commonwealth v. Morris (537 Pa. 417, 644 A.2d 721 (1994)), where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court applied the Long standard to validate a vehicle search conducted during a traffic stop. In Morris, the police observed the defendant leaning towards the floor as they approached his vehicle. Based on this action, the police conducted a protective search and found weapons. The court upheld the search, concluding that the officer had a reasonable belief that his safety was at risk.

The Superior Court noted that in the present case, the suppression court erroneously applied a probable cause standard instead of the reasonable suspicion standard required for a protective search under Long. The suppression court also incorrectly found that exigent circumstances beyond the mere mobility of the vehicle were necessary to justify the search.

Reviewing the evidence presented at the suppression hearing, the Superior Court found that the Commonwealth failed to establish specific and articulable facts that would justify a reasonable suspicion that Cartagena was armed and dangerous. The court highlighted several points:

  1. Nervousness: While Officer Johncola testified that Cartagena appeared nervous, the court noted that nervousness alone is not sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion. In Commonwealth v. Gray (896 A.2d 601 (Pa.Super.2006)), the court had previously held that nervousness must be considered within the totality of the circumstances and cannot alone justify a protective search.

  2. Timing of the Search: The officers did not order Cartagena out of his vehicle immediately upon stopping him. Instead, they allowed him to retrieve his registration and insurance from the glove box before conducting the search. By this time, the factor of the tinted windows, which initially obscured the officers’ view, had receded as Cartagena had already lowered his windows.

  3. Absence of Other Indicia of Danger: The court observed that there were no other specific and articulable facts that would support a reasonable suspicion that Cartagena was armed and dangerous. Unlike in Morris, there were no furtive movements, and Cartagena complied with the officers’ requests without any threatening behavior.

  4. Lack of Testimony on Officer’s Training and Experience: The court noted the absence of testimony regarding Officer Johncola’s level of training or experience in conducting traffic stops, which could have provided context for his actions and suspicions.

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The Superior Court emphasized that the totality of the circumstances did not support a finding of reasonable suspicion. The facts presented by the Commonwealth—Cartagena’s nervousness, the late-night stop, and the heavily tinted windows—were insufficient to justify the protective search. The court concluded that the Commonwealth did not meet its burden of establishing the legality of the warrantless search of Cartagena’s vehicle.

The Superior Court affirmed the suppression court’s decision to suppress the firearm found in Cartagena’s center console, highlighting that the constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches must be upheld, and the officers’ actions in this case did not meet the necessary legal standards.