The reputation of Penn State's football program recently took another hit with the news that drugs were found in the on-campus apartment shared by a senior wide receiver and a former defensive end. No drug charges have been filed against either of the two young men at this time, but police are continuing to investigate and charges may be filed at a later date.
While there are certainly a lot of things we don't know yet about the facts of this particular case or how it will be resolved, we think the story highlights a probable cause issue worth talking about with respect to Pennsylvania drug cases.
First, let's review the story that has been told thus far.
Penn State Police Chief Tyrone Parham has said that on March 14, police received a call from a university residence coordinator who had noticed a damaged window screen on the second floor unit where the two men lived. Concerned that there might be a burglary in progress and with no sign that either occupant was home, police entered the apartment. Once inside, the officers allegedly saw drugs and drug paraphernalia in plain view in the common areas of the residence, and at that point requested and obtained a search warrant.
Is this okay? Generally speaking, yes ... provided the officers had a plausible, legally justifiable reason to enter the apartment. Here, the officers are claiming they had enough probable cause to enter a private residence without a warrant because of their belief that a crime might be in progress. And maybe they did, we don't know yet.
But what if the second story window screen in this story is 15 feet off the ground with no stairs or ladder or anything else that could be used to access it nearby? Would probable cause still exist? Again it might, but the issue would certainly be open to question and require more scrutiny.
Experienced defense lawyers know that in the real world, drug charges often involve probable cause problems, illegal searches and seizures, and other violations of constitutional rights. These concerns, in turn, make a thorough investigation and careful analysis of the facts in each case an absolute necessity.
Source: State College News, "Penn State Football: Crawford, Smith Apartment Searched," Laura Nichols, March 26, 2012
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