[Posted November 3, 2010] Yesterday, while you and I were out voting, the Court of Appeals released two published opinions in criminal appeals. Republicans weren’t the only big winners yesterday, as both appellants secure reversals.

There’s an interesting jurisdictional issue in Harris v. Commonwealth, based on a statute that gives trial courts continuing jurisdiction, even after 21 days, to modify criminal sentences as long as the defendant hasn’t been transferred to the state prison system yet. Harris moved the trial court to reconsider its sentence, at the same time pursuing an appeal in the Court of Appeals. The trial judge noted that the case was then pending before the Court of Appeals, so he ruled that he no longer had jurisdiction to consider a revision of the sentence.

That’s wrong, it turns out. Generally, two courts (a trial court and an appellate court) can’t have jurisdiction over the same case at the same time. Appellate courts take over only when the judgment below is final, and appealing is generally an indication that the appellant thinks the judgment really is final. But here, there’s a narrow statutory exception to the normal 21-day finality. Since Harris was indeed still in the local jail when the trial court took up the matter (only to put it back down again quickly), both courts had jurisdiction of the matter at the same time.

The opinion notes that “the General Assembly ultimately determines the jurisdictional parameters of the Commonwealth’s courts, and however problematic the conceivable consequences may be, we are bound by the statutory scheme.” That’s polite judicial-ese for, “We didn’t create this jurisdictional mess; we just have to live with it.”

The other decision comes in Watts v. Commonwealth, a Fourth Amendment issue arising in an appeal of the denial of a motion to suppress. Watts pulled into a parking area in what I take to be an apartment complex. A police officer saw him as he calmly parked the car, got out, and started walking blithely toward the apartment building. The closest thing we’ve got to probable cause at this point is in the description of the car: “a gold car with a peeling inspection sticker, a missing front license plate, and a temporary rear license tag.”

The officer called out to ask Watts a question or two; Watts complied. He related that he had just bought the car (that would explain the single temporary tag, at least somewhat). The officer then noted a bulge in Watts’s pants that he thought was a weapon. He told Watts that he was going to pat him down, but just like our hero in the Baker appeal two weeks ago, Watts decided that evasion was more advisable. He took off, and unlike Baker, Watts got away.

The officer came back to the car, and asked some of the neighbors (who had started milling around after the excitement) if they knew who the car belonged to. “Nope,” they replied; although a newly-purchased vehicle obviously wouldn’t be too familiar around the ‘hood. The officer never tried to contact management to find out if the car’s owner had a right to park there.

Instead, he arranged to have the car towed, and he searched it as part of that process. Opening up a poorly fitting center console, he discovered crack and marijuana. He also found enough personal documents inside to ascertain that the driver was the now-missing Watts.

After being arrested, Watts moved to suppress the evidence taken from the vehicle (which, you must admit, was pretty much the Commonwealth’s whole case; they weren’t exactly going to try him for improper display of temporary tags). Considering all the circumstances, the trial court concluded that the search was reasonable.

There are a couple of components to this legal analysis, but the one I found most interesting was the question of whether Watts had abandoned the car, making it fair game for a search. You have a limited expectation of privacy in a vehicle (not as strong as the one you have in your home), but if you abandon the car, you basically forfeit that expectation. The caselaw on this point gives one clear example, where a driver got out of a burning car and left the scene; when he didn’t return for two or three hours, the police had the right to search a briefcase in the trunk.

This case, the court finds, is different. Watts acknowledged in the initial consensual encounter that he owned the car, and he never changed that claim. The car was parked normally, not left by the side of the road. And at the time he opened the console, the officer had no idea who the driver was, so he still didn’t know if the owner was entitled to park there.

The court thus remands the case, but not before conducting a sufficiency analysis, including the improperly admitted evidence. Why would they do that, you ask? For Double-Jeopardy purposes. If the evidence even with the tainted evidence was insufficient, then Watts would be entitled to a dismissal of the charges, not merely to a new trial. The court finds the evidence in the case to be sufficient, but on remand I suspect a wholly different result; the Commonwealth just isn’t going anywhere on a drug case where the drugs are inadmissible.