The PA Superior Court recently affirmed a suppression court’s finding that probable cause to believe that a man has committed a crime on the street does not necessarily give rise to probable cause to search his home.
In this appeal (filed by the Commonwealth), the issued presented to the Superior Court was whether a search warrant issued for the Defendant (Nicholson)’s home was supported by probable cause. The affidavit of probable cause submitted to obtain the search warrant was authored by an Affiant who was part of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Drug Task Force.
The local Magisterial District Judge granted the search warrant, authorizing the search of Nicholson’s home. During the search, the police found cocaine, paraphernalia, weapons, and cash, which resulted in Nicholson being charged with several drug and firearms offenses.
Prior to trial, Nicholson filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence seized from his home, arguing that the affidavit supporting the search warrant did not establish probable cause to believe that evidence of criminal activity would be found in his residence. The suppression court granted Nicholson’s Motion to Suppress, precluding the seized evidence from being admitted at trial.
The Commonwealth filed an appeal to the Superior Court arguing, in part, that probable cause was established because the police observed Nicholson going home after each of the two controlled buys. Furthermore, the Commonwealth claimed that the suppression court failed to evaluate the facts “in a common-sense, non-technical fashion” when it determined that the affidavit failed to establish probable cause for the issuance of the search warrant.
The prevailing theme of the Superior Court’s decision focused on the concept that “probable cause to believe that a man has committed a crime on the street does not necessarily give rise to probable cause to search his home.”
The Court explained that an affidavit of probable cause must establish a “substantial nexus” between a suspect’s home and the criminal activity or contraband sought to permit the search of the home.
In this case, while Nicholson returned to his residence after each drug sale, those facts alone did not support a probable cause determination justifying a search of his home.
Although the investigation included the use of a Confidential Informant, the CI never reported to police that Nicholson was selling drugs from his home. Therefore, police did not (and could not) corroborate a “tip” as to where Nicholson’s stash was being kept, because no such tip was ever given. Additionally, the police conducting the investigation never observed Nicholson proceeding directly from his residence to the locations of the drug buys.
The Superior Court also addressed the Affiant’s assertion that, based on his “professional experience,” drugs would be found in Nicholson’s home because “drug dealers typically store drugs, weapons, and other contraband in their homes.”
Although the use of these assertions is certainly not uncommon in search warrant affidavits, the Court appeared critical of their use, especially when there are no facts offered to support the Affiant’s conclusions. The Court explained that “there must be something in the affidavit that links the place to be searched directly to the criminal activity. Merely referring to ‘professional experience’ does not alone justify the issuance of a search warrant. Otherwise, a police officer’s ‘professional experience’ could be used to justify a search of any place where drugs could possibly be kept.”
In Nicholson’s case, the Court noted that the Affiant’s “professional knowledge,” as expressed in the affidavit, was “so expansive as to where drug dealers keep drugs that it [was] pretty much pure speculation and conjecture and [could not] serve, even if not foreclosed for other reasons mentioned, as any basis for which a search warrant [could] be issued.”
Based on the above, the suppression court’s finding that there was no probable cause to support the search Nicholson’s residence was affirmed by the Superior Court.