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Illegal search sends drugs conviction for retrial

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects suspects from unwarranted searches by police. This principle led a Pennsylvania appeal's court to set aside a 2017 conviction of a man for drug charges and order a new trial earlier this month.

The defendant is currently serving a 30 to 60-month prison sentence. He was convicted for possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia based on evidence state parole agents found in a home where he was staying.

The female occupant of the home answered the door and was informed by parole agents that they were looking for the defendant and coming in. They were told that he was in the upstairs area of the house. Because of their reasonable belief that he was in the house, they entered the residence and found him in the attic.

In the attic, they saw a plate containing a powder substance, baggie and a cutting tool. The agents then took him into custody and called city police. After obtaining a search warrant, they seized 103 heroin packets, $736, the plate and packaging material.

The state superior court set aside the conviction because of the illegal search of the home. It relied on a recent state supreme court opinion that rejected the standard that agents could enter a home based upon a reasonable belief. A magistrate must first find that there is probable cause that the person or evidence being sought is in the home.

In this case, a magistrate did not review the parole agents' administrative action, the action did not contain the premises' address and the belief was based only on a tip that the defendant was living in that house and selling drugs there. The woman who answered the door did not give permission for their entry. The court ordered a new trial without the seized evidence. The defendant's attorney said that he did not think the case could be retried without this evidence.

A suspect should seek legal assistance immediately when police conduct a search. An attorney can help protect their constitutional rights.

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