The PA Commonwealth Court has recently held that a motion to suppress evidence may be brought in a Rule 588 return of property action, regardless of whether the Commonwealth has filed criminal charges or a forfeiture action.
On January 23, 2020, a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper stopped Appellant’s vehicle and seized approximately $300,000 in cash (Property). On February 4, 2020, Appellant brought a stand-alone return of property action in the Court of Common Pleas, seeking the return of the Property. And, on February 28, 2020, Appellant filed a Motion to Suppress, seeking suppression of the Property, Appellant’s iPhone, which was also seized, and all statements made by Appellant to law enforcement. No criminal charges had been filed against Appellant at that time.
The Common Pleas Court denied Appellant’s Motion to Suppress as having been filed prematurely.
Appellant filed an appeal of this denial to the Commonwealth Court, arguing in part that the effect of the Common Pleas Court decision was to permit the Commonwealth to “sit” on evidence it seized “until the Commonwealth decides to provide . . . an opportunity” to the aggrieved individual to suppress evidence. According to Appellant, this “would leave similarly situated individuals without any mechanism to challenge the seizure of their property” and it is also “a matter of public interest as it concerns property seized from those who have not been charged with any crime.”
The Commonwealth had opposed Appellant’s Motion to Suppress, “maintaining that Appellant could not bring a stand-alone motion to suppress in a return of property action prior to the Commonwealth filing criminal charges or initiating a forfeiture action.” After Appellant filed the appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the Commonwealth filed a Forfeiture action against the Property, arguing that Appellant’s appeal was now rendered moot.
The Commonwealth Court concluded that the issue of whether an individual can seek suppression of evidence in a return of property action where the individual was not charged with a crime was not moot because it “undoubtedly” concerned a matter of important public interest.
Moving to the merits of Appellant’s ability to file a suppression motion as part of a motion to return property, the Commonwealth Court held that “a motion to suppress may be brought in a … return of property action, regardless of whether the Commonwealth has filed criminal charges or a forfeiture action.”
In so deciding, the Commonwealth Court explained that although forfeiture actions are civil in form, “the motion to suppress is a procedural vehicle effectuating the purpose of the exclusionary rule which is to deter police misconduct, by allowing the ‘[s]uppression of the use of illegally seized evidence against the search victim[.]’” And, absent the ability to file a motion to suppress evidence seized unconstitutionally, the exclusionary rule would be without teeth.”