Don’t Leave Your Drug-Filled Suitcase Outside The Bryce Jordan Center

In December of 2018, a young woman tried to take a 2-foot by 3-foot suitcase into the Bryce Jordan Center during Penn State’s graduation ceremony.  She was told by security that the suitcase could not be taken into the building.  Instead of taking the suitcase back to her vehicle, she left the suitcase outside while she went into the building.  The security personnel then flagged down a nearby Penn State Police Officer, discussed the situation, and the officer made the decision to move the suitcase away from the building and then search it.  During the search, the officer found marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, and a scale.

The woman later met with the police, the police advised her of her Miranda rights, the woman waived those rights, and she admitted that the drugs were hers and that she had sold marijuana to friends.  She even provided her cell phone to the police, and the phone contained incriminating information, most likely texts about selling drugs.  The woman was then charged with various misdemeanor drug and paraphernalia possession charges, and she was charged with felony offenses for Possession With Intent to Deliver and Criminal Use of a Communication Facility.

Did Warrantless Search Violate Constitutional Rights

In this case, captioned Commonwealth v. Johnstone, the woman’s State College criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress evidence in the Pretrial Phase of the case.  If the evidence from the suitcase were suppressed, then the prosecutor would have no evidence to present at a trial, and the case would be dismissed.  The defense lawyer’s argument was that the officer was required to obtain a warrant before he could search the suitcase.  The Centre County District Attorney’s Office argued that a warrant was not needed because the property had been abandoned.  The prosecutor also argued that a warrant was not needed under a “public servant” exception to the warrant requirement.

The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution generally requires that the police obtain a warrant from a judge before they can search something.  Pennsylvania courts have ruled that the police do not need to obtain a warrant to search abandoned property.  In this case, the defense attorney argued that the woman intended to return and retrieve the bag.  The judge noted that the police had no reason to believe that the women would be retrieving the bag, so the court ruled that the suitcase had been abandoned.  Because the suitcase was abandoned, the judge stated that the police did not need to obtain a warrant to legally search.

The judge also ruled that the officer was permitted to search without a warrant under the “public servant” exception to ensure public safety.  The judge’s written opinion referenced the Boston Marathon bombing, and the judge then noted that officers would be expected to search a large suitcase that was left sitting outside a venue containing thousands of people.  Nobody wants to have another disaster based upon inaction by the police.

Suppression Denied – Evidence Admissible

With the denial of the motion to suppress, all of the evidence obtained from searching the bag and the woman’s admissions to selling drugs are admissible against her at trial.  In a case like this, it is won or lost in the pretrial phase of the case.  Had the evidence been suppressed, the case would have been dismissed, and the woman could have gone through the expungement process to have records of the case destroyed.  However, by losing the suppression issue, the woman is highly unlikely to win at a trial.  If convicted of the felony drug charge, she will face a sentence that could include jail time and fines, and she will face collateral consequences such as the inability to go to the military or possess a firearm.