The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 29, 2012

State Supreme Court reverses local drug possession convictions

By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item

— MIDDLEBURG — Four state police troopers entered a Mount Pleasant Mills home without a search warrant late one night in August 2009 in an attempt to serve a warrant on summary traffic violation against a person who didn’t live there.

The reason for the warrantless nighttime raid? The troopers were working the night shift and had a tip that Ryan Lecroy — wanted for failing to respond to a traffic citation following an accident — was at the Buckwheat Valley Road home.

He wasn’t. But four occupants, including a 4-year-old and a pregnant woman, were asleep inside.

The raid led to the convictions of Kent L. and Brandy L. Berkheimer on possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia following a bench trial presided over by Snyder-Union Senior Judge Louise O. Knight. Each was sentenced to a one-month to 23-month jail term and a $1,000 fine.

Knight ruled that while Troopers Rodney Shoeman and William Gangloff, accompanied by Troopers Tyson Havens and Scott Havens, didn’t have a search warrant to enter the home, the evidence seized was admissible under an “independent source” rule because they could smell the odor of marijuana outside the door.

The Berkheimers appealed to a-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and lost.

Represented by State College attorney Matthew McClenahan, they reargued the case to the full nine-member superior Court and won a unanimous reversal of their conviction.

In its 38-page decision released last week, the court found the troopers’ nighttime raid was an invasion of the Berkheimers’ privacy and evidence was improperly seized.

The court was also critical of the troopers’ decision to take the four occupants of the home to a neighbor’s house to wait a few hours while a warrant was obtained and a search was conducted.

“Seldom has this court encountered conduct by law enforcement officers so abjectly (hostile)” to the state’s search and seizure law.

Read more of this story in Thursday's edition of The Daily Item