Separate Motions to Suppress Evidence on Two Different Charges

In v. Lagana, 510 Pa. 477, 509 A.2d 863 (1986) Lagana was charged separately with a firearms violation and with burglary, and the cases proceeded separately through the system, the Commonwealth not having consolidated them. As a result, defense counsel filed separate motions to suppress. At the suppression hearing on the burglary matter, the court suppressed the burglary evidence, finding that the police lacked probable cause to arrest Lagana because there was no evidence regarding the reliability of the police radio information that led to the arrest. Rather than appealing the decision, the Commonwealth nolle prossed the burglary charge. Id. at , 509 A.2d at 864. At a suppression hearing on the firearms matter, the suppression court, who was not the same judge who presided over the burglary suppression, ruled that by operation of collateral estoppel, the burglary suppression court's findings of fact and conclusions of law were binding. As a result, without taking evidence, the firearms court suppressed the gun. Id. While this court affirmed the trial court, our supreme court found appropriate a limited form of collateral estoppel, in which the ruling of the first suppression court would be incorporated into the record of the second hearing, thereby allowing review of the first decision on appeal in the second proceedings. Id. at 866. The Commonwealth argues, however, that this case is distinguishable from Lagana because the issues before a suppression court are not the same as the issues at trial. A suppression court's ruling as to probable cause does not usually implicate the Commonwealth's ability to go forward with its case beyond precluding the Commonwealth from introducing the suppressed evidence: it is free to go forward as to any other, non-suppressed evidence. Nevertheless, as I noted supra, this is an unusual case. Variations on the facts of Lagana will explain. As already noted, Lagana was charged separately with the firearms and burglary violations. Even if these charges had been consolidated, however, and defense counsel had moved to suppress only the contents of the carrying cases but not the gun on the basis of the unreliable radio report, I envision the following possible scenarios. In the first scenario, the officer arrived at the corner and saw Lagana standing there with the gun. the Commonwealth could then proceed on the firearms violation because independent credible evidence, i.e., the officer's observation of Lagana holding the gun on a public street, would establish a prima facie case of a firearms violation. If, on the other hand, the radio report indicated that Lagana had thrown the gun into nearby bushes, and, on arriving, the police officer found the gun in the bushes, only the unreliable radio report could establish a connection between Lagana and the gun. The Commonwealth would therefore be unable to establish a prima facie case that Lagana constructively possessed the gun and would be unable to proceed on the firearms violation.