Gun Court Rules Illegal in Warrantless Search

Gun Court Rules Illegal in Warrantless Search

A Philadelphia man sentenced to probation in Philadelphia’s “Gun Court,” persuaded the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the Gun Court rules were illegal.

Philadelphia’s Gun Court is not actually a court, instead it simply is a program designed to fast track trial and sentencing in gun possession crimes. The program was designed to decrease the number of illegal guns in active circulation, and to speed up supervision of possessors of illegal guns.

The man who challenged the program focused on the Gun Court rules of probation. Arrested for pointing a gun at an occupant of a car, the man was found guilty of possessing a hand gun without a license, and of possessing a hand gun with an altered serial number. Only twenty years old, the man already had an extensive criminal history. Largely because of that past criminal history, the judge sentenced the man to several years in jail, to be followed by a strict probation period of three years. Additionally, the judge ordered that the man’s probation officer could search his home at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, to find guns or contraband. The broad search power in the probation conditions was a routine provision used in Gun Court for probationers.

The man appealed, focusing on the probation provision that permitted a probation officer to search his home without warrant and without any particular reason or suspicion. Pennsylvania law regulating probation officers permits them to conduct warrantless searches of probationers’ homes and property if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the probationer has violated probation rules or possesses contraband or other illegal property. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court relied on the probation statute and decided that Gun Court judges may not expand the powers of probation officers by permitting “suspicionless, warrantless searches” of probationers’ homes and property.

Gun Court may continue to expedite and focus on gun crimes; but the firm measure of subjecting probationers to property searches without reasonable suspicion is no longer a weapon in the Gun Court’s arsenal.