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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Announces Search Warrant Required for Nonconsensual Entry into Any Residence to Carry Out Arrest Warrant

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania adopted a new rule governing nonconsensual entry into a residence to effectuate an arrest warrant. The Court rejected the constitutional framework utilized by lower state courts that differentiated between a third-party’s residence and that of the subject of an arrest warrant, which mandated a search warrant for nonconsensual entry into the former but not the latter. The Court announced that a search warrant is now required to enter any residence to carry out a search and arrest.  

A parolee named Earnest Moreno absconded from a halfway house in Philadelphia. An arrest warrant was issued for him. Authorities believed 4745 North 2nd Avenue was his residence and attempted to execute the arrest warrant at that location. In fact, it was the residence of his half-brother, Angel Romero, and his wife, Wendy Castro. While searching the residence for Moreno, investigators noticed a large number of marijuana plants in the basement. They subsequently obtained a search warrant for the premises and recovered evidence of a large-scale marijuana-growing operation.

Romero and Castro were charged with several drug offenses. They both filed motions to suppress the evidence. At the suppression hearing, the lead agent testified that several investigative leads led him to believe that the premises in question “seemed to be the most likely” place of residence of Moreno. But he conceded that there were other possible locations. The agent acknowledged that Romero and Castro objected to the agents’ presence and search once they approached the basement, but they ignored the objections.

The suppression court granted the motions to suppress. It based its ruling on its determination that the agent’s belief that Moreno resided at the premises in question was unreasonable. The Superior Court reversed and remanded the case for trial. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear Romero and Castro’s appeal.

The Court addressed an open question under the Fourth Amendment: the scope of authority provided by an arrest warrant to enter a private residence and search for the subject of the warrant. It observed that the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) has addressed specific aspects of this issue but has never definitively established the contours of the authority granted by an arrest warrant.

In Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980), SCOTUS held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits law enforcement from making a warrantless and nonconsensual entry into a private residence in order to execute a routine felony arrest. In frequently cited dictum, the Payton Court opined that “an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.”

A year later in Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981), SCOTUS held that an arrest warrant does not authorize nonconsensual entry into the residence of a third party not named in the arrest warrant. The Steagald Court held that a search warrant based upon probable cause is required for police to enter a third party’s residence to search for the subject of the arrest warrant.

Taken together, Payton’s dictum and Steagald suggest that an arrest warrant authorizes police to enter the residence of the subject of the warrant to effectuate the arrest, but it does not authorize police to enter the residence of a third party. However, the open question that courts have struggled with in the absence of guidance by SCOTUS is “the degree and manner of proof required to establish that a place is in fact an individual’s residence,” which dictates whether Payton’s dictum or Steagald applies. In practice, this unsettled question results in a great deal of uncertainty and litigation with law enforcement and defendants arguing over whether a particular residence is that of the subject of an arrest warrant or belongs to a third party.

After a painstaking review of how various federal and state courts have handled this issue, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that Payton’s dictum is to be disregarded and that Steagald applies to all cases involving an arrest warrant and nonconsensual entry into a private residence. That is, in Pennsylvania, there is no distinction between the residence of the subject of an arrest warrant and that of a third party—a search warrant based upon probable cause is required for nonconsensual entry into all residences for the purpose of searching for and effectuating an arrest, unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies.

The Court provided the following rationale for its newly announced rule: “We cannot interpret the Payton dictum to approve of the intolerable consequence that homes may be searched without a warrant supported by probable cause simply on the strength of a police officer’s mistaken assumption. Such a conclusion effectively would nullify the Steagald holding.” The Court instructed that this is now the rule in Pennsylvania until SCOTUS issues “contrary guidance.”      

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Commonwealth v. Romero, 2018 Pa. LEXIS 2166 (2018).

Note: This opinion was issued on April 26, 2018. The Court explained that parties whose cases are pending upon direct appeal are entitled to the benefit of changes in the law. In re L.J., 79 A.3d 1073 (2013). As such, this newly announced rule may apply to particular defendants whose cases are currently on direct appeal. 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Romero



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