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State v. Pokoiski

Superior Court of Delaware

June 19, 2017

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
ROBERT POKOISKI, Defendant.

          Date Submitted: April 3, 2017

         Upon Defendant's Motion to Suppress: GRANTED.

          Allison J. Abessinio, Esquire, Deputy Attorney General, Delaware Department of Justice, Attorney for the State.

          David C. Skoranski, Esquire, 820 North French Street, Wilmington, DE. Attorney for Defendant.

          OPINION

          Jan R. Jurden, President Judge

          I. INTRODUCTION

         In response to an informant's tip that Defendant Robert Pokoiski possessed a firearm, Probation officers performed a warrantless administrative search of Defendant's residence, located a firearm and ammunition, and seized those items. As a result of the warrantless administrative search, Defendant was charged with Possession of a Firearm by a Person Prohibited and Possession of Ammunition by a Person Prohibited. Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress, the State responded, and the Court held a suppression hearing.[1] For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion to Suppress is GRANTED.

         II. FACTS

         On October 6, 2016, Wilmington Police Detective Matthew Rosaio relayed information from an informant to Probation Officer William Walker that a probationer living at 509 Maryland Avenue was in possession of a firearm. The informant was not past proven reliable. Officer Walker performed a search on Probation's DACS system to ascertain whether a probationer lived at 509 Maryland Avenue. The system identified Defendant Robert Pokoiski as a resident of 509 Maryland Avenue, and Officer Walker confirmed that Defendant was serving a Level II probation sentence. Pursuant to 11 Del. C. § 1448, Defendant was prohibited from possessing a firearm and/or ammunition. Officer Walker provided Detective Rosaio with a photograph of Defendant. Detective Rosaio showed the photograph to the informant, and the informant stated that the person pictured was the probationer they observed in possession of a firearm.

         Officer Walker did not solicit additional information from the informant either directly or through Detective Rosaio with regard to whether the informant's tip was based on personal knowledge, whether the informant could provide additional details that might establish the reliability of the tip, or the reasons that the informant was supplying the information.[2] Thus, the tip was wholly uncorroborated as to Defendant's alleged possession of a firearm.

         Upon the informant's identification of Defendant and Officer Walker's confirmation of Defendant's status as a probationer, Officer Walker contacted his supervisor, Robert Willoughby, to receive permission to conduct a warrantless administrative search of Defendant's residence. Officer Walker and Officer Willoughby reviewed Probation's Arrest/Search Checklist, [3] whereupon Officer Willoughby approved a warrantless administrative search of the residence and approved Defendant's arrest. At the time Officer Willoughby approved the search, he was aware that the informant was not past proven reliable.

         Two Probation officers, including Officer Walker, and four members of the Wilmington Police Department, including Detective Rosaio, responded to 509 Maryland Avenue to conduct the administrative search.[4] Upon arrival, the officers knocked on the front door, Defendant inquired who was at the door, and the officers identified themselves as Probation officers. Defendant opened the door, and Officer Walker asked Defendant if there was any contraband in the residence. Defendant replied that he did not think there was. When asked if he was sure there was no contraband inside the residence, Defendant replied that there was a gun in the upstairs bedroom. Officer Walker searched the upstairs bedroom and found a 9 mm firearm, ammunition, and a hip holster. After Officer Walker retrieved the firearm from the upstairs bedroom, the officers did not ask Defendant any further questions until Detective Rosaio informed Defendant of his Miranda rights.

         At the suppression hearing on the instant Motion, Officer Walker testified that he would have searched the house regardless of whether Defendant admitted possessing a firearm and that Defendant was not at liberty to leave at the time that he was being questioned prior to the search.

         III. PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

         Defendant asserts that Officer Walker did not have reasonable suspicion to search Defendant's residence after completing the Arrest/Search Checklist with his supervisor. As a consequence of this lack of reasonable suspicion, Defendant argues, the issuance of the administrative search authorization was "illegal, " thereby tainting both Defendant's statement and the items seized.[5] Thus, the firearm is the fruit of an illegal search. As fruit of an illegal search, Defendant maintains the firearm should be excluded if the illegal search is the "but for" cause of its discovery.[6] According to Defendant, the issuance of the administrative search authorization is the "but for" cause of the discovery, and therefore, both Defendant's statements to Officer Walker and the items seized should be suppressed.[7]

         The State argues that Officer Walker complied with Probation guidelines by completing the Arrest/Search Checklist and obtaining approval from Officer Willoughby to conduct an administrative search of Defendant's residence.[8] While the State concedes that Officer Walker did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct an administrative search at the time the search was authorized, the State maintains that Officer Walker lawfully entered Defendant's residence and engaged in conversation with Defendant.[9] Thus, the State argues, at the time Officer Walker searched Defendant's residence, he had reasonable suspicion to search based on Defendant's corroboration of the informant's tip that there was a firearm in the upstairs bedroom.[10]

         In the alternative, the State argues that even if the issuance of the administrative search authorization was "illegal" as argued by Defendant, Defendant's statement, as well as the items seized at Defendant's residence, are "sufficiently distinguishable" from any illegality such that they should not be suppressed.[11] In support of this argument, the State argues that the officers obtained an admission that there was a gun in the residence after lawfully entering the residence and speaking to Defendant, and Defendant's admission would support a finding of reasonable suspicion to search entirely independent of the confidential informant's tip.[12]

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         While "[probationers do not have the same liberties as ordinary citizens, "[13] and "the unique nature of probationary supervision 'justifies a departure from the usual warrant and probable cause requirements for searches, '"[14] "Delaware case law and administrative law do not permit suspicionless probationer searches."[15] A probation officer must have reasonable suspicion or reasonable grounds to justify an administrative search of a residence.[16]

         Probation officers are authorized to conduct warrantless administrative searches of probationers pursuant to 11 Del. C. § 4321(d), which states:

Probation and parole officers shall exercise the same powers as constables under the laws of this State and may conduct searches of individuals under probation and parole supervision in accordance with Department procedures while in the performance of the lawful duties of their employment and shall execute lawful orders, warrants and other process as directed to the officer by any court, judge or Board of Parole of this State ....

         The Delaware Department of Correction has enacted procedures that govern how probation officers initiate administrative searches of probationers' residences.[17] In the absence of exigent circumstances, the probation officer must hold a case conference with their supervisor using the Search Checklist as a guideline to determine whether there is reasonable suspicion to conduct an administrative search.[18] '"Reasonable suspicion' exists where the 'totality of the circumstances' indicates that the officer had 'a particularized and objective basis' for suspecting legal wrongdoing."[19] In cases like the instant one, where the decision to search is based on a tip, Probation and Parole Procedure 7.19 requires Probation officers to "assess any 'tip' relayed to them and independently determine if a reasonable suspicion exists that would, in the ordinary course of their duties, prompt a search of a probationer's dwelling."[20]

         V. DISCUSSION

         As an initial matter, the State has conceded that at the time Officer Walker sought authorization to search Defendant's residence from Officer Willoughby, Officer Walker did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to support a warrantless administrative search. The State's concession flows from the clarity of Delaware law with regard to whether an uncorroborated tip from an informant who is not past proven reliable can, by itself, support a finding of reasonable articulable suspicion.[21] It cannot.

          For example, in Sierra v. State, an unidentified Department of Justice employee relayed a tip to Probation from a confidential informant that Fernando Sierra possessed drugs in his residence.[22] The Department of Justice employee did not convey to Probation the confidential informant's identity or whether the confidential informant was past proven reliable.[23] Additionally, the tip provided "only observable information" that did not demonstrate that the informant had actual knowledge of illegal activity.[24] A Probation officer completed an Arrest/Search Checklist, and a Probation supervisor approved a warrantless administrative search of Sierra's residence.[25] Sierra moved to suppress the evidence seized at his residence and statements made by him as a result of the search.[26] The Delaware Supreme Court found that the tip did not establish reasonable suspicion to support a search of Sierra's residence.[27]

         In light of Sierra and other similar cases, [28] the State could not credibly argue that at the time Officer Walker sought search authorization, he had reasonable suspicion to support a search of Defendant's residence. Thus, to support its argument that the Motion to Suppress should be denied, the State relies on Defendant's admission that there was a gun in his residence.

         Delaware law requires that a search of a probationer's residence by a Probation officer be supported by reasonable articulable suspicion and that Probation officers comply with Probation procedures.[29] As explained in Fuller v. State, strict compliance with Probation procedures is not required.[30]

         In Fuller, Probation officers received information from a past proven reliable informant that a probationer in possession of a firearm was selling crack cocaine in Wilmington's Hilltop area.[31] The past proven reliable informant described the probationer's physical appearance and reported that the probationer drove an older model red Volvo with tinted windows.[32] The investigating Probation officer discussed and considered the tip with his supervisor and, thereafter, the supervisor gave the officer authorization r to stop the vehicle.[33] The next day, the Probation officer observed an older model red Volvo in the Hilltop area and verified that the vehicle was registered to a probationer.[34] With the assistance of police, the Probation officer stopped the vehicle, contacted his supervisor to confirm authorization to search the vehicle, and then searched the vehicle.[35] Two bags of crack cocaine were seized from the vehicle.[36] The Superior Court held, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that the officers had probable cause to believe that there was contraband in the vehicle at the time of the stop.[37]

         The defendant in Fuller argued that the evidence seized from his car should be suppressed because-even though the Probation officer obtained approval to stop and search the vehicle from his supervisor-the Probation officer did not fill out Probation's Arrest/Search Checklist and did not conduct a face-to-face case conference with his supervisor before stopping and searching the vehicle. [38] The Delaware Supreme Court found the search reasonable under the United States and Delaware Constitutions, and held "[t]o the extent that the officers departed from departmental guidelines, the departure did not render the search unconstitutional."[39] In support of this holding, the Supreme Court explained:

The purpose of the regulations is to ensure that the Department has sufficient grounds before undertaking a search. The individual procedures advance that goal but are not independently necessary, as demonstrated by the fact that the regulations explicitly state exceptions for when the search checklist need not be used.[40]

         As to the facts of the case in Fuller, the Supreme Court noted:

[The Probation officer] twice received supervisor approval to conduct the search-first, after discussing the information contained in the tip before the subject vehicle was located and second, after a vehicle matching the description had been found and officers had confirmed that it was registered to a probationer. In obtaining that approval, the officers and the supervisor considered the information that the Department had and whether it provided sufficient grounds to search.[41]

         The Supreme Court concluded that the officers' failure to follow each technical requirement of the regulations before searching did not render the search unreasonable because the officers did ...


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