PA: SW for firearm in defendant’s home was stale 15 months after the murder (but harmless)

A search warrant for a murder weapon in defendant’s house was stale when it was issued 15 months after the murder. It was, however, harmless error in this case. Commonwealth v. Jacoby, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 2274 (Sept. 28, 2017) (separate opinions: concurring, concurring and dissenting, dissenting):

Probable cause to search Jacoby’s home did not exist simply because probable cause existed to believe that he had committed the murder, with a weapon of the same caliber as one that he owned, and then drove in the general direction of his home fifteen months before the search warrant was issued. Together and by themselves, these factors do not justify entry without some nexus to the home. The trial court overlooked the significant gap of time between the murder and the search, and then attempted to buttress its conclusion with an unsourced assessment of general human behavior. Without support, the trial court reasoned that people—felons especially—generally do not discard firearms, even those used in murders.

This broad perspective on probable cause finds no support in Pennsylvania law and is troubling on several levels. First, the trial court deviated from the search jurisprudence summarized above without acknowledging or attempting to distinguish it. The trial court would hold that, if police officers develop probable cause that a person committed an offense anywhere in the Commonwealth with a weapon of the same caliber as the one that he or she owns, probable cause exists automatically to search that person’s home, no matter where it is located. It is easy to discern the infirmity of this approach. If the trial court’s reasoning were to prevail, when a person commits an offense with such a weapon in Erie County, police automatically would have probable cause to search that person’s home, even if it is located in Delaware County. This is inconsistent with Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Additionally, the trial court’s method for evaluating probable cause does not require consideration, in any way, of the time lapse between the commission of the offense and the search. Rather than addressing the time gap, the trial court would rest upon its belief that people generally hold on to guns (even those used in murders) and that, as such, probable cause to search for guns exists in apparent perpetuity. By this logic, in the case of the Erie murder, the trial court would find probable cause to search the Delaware County residence not only immediately after the murder, but also fifteen months later, and presumably even ten years after the crime.

This entry was posted in Staleness. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.