When are you an "inmate"?

Comm. v. Cornelius, 2018 PA 49 (Mar. 7, 2018)

When Are You An “Inmate”?

This was an appeal out of Warren County.  The facts are pretty straightforward.

Cornelius was arrested on a parole violation at his apartment.  At the time he was wearing shorts with a baggie of methamphetamine sewn into the fabric.  He was searched incident to arrest, and he was advised to turn over any contraband that may have been missed during the search.  Cornelius was further advised if contraband was discovered once he arrived at the jail, then he would be subject to new charges.

Cornelius never alerted authorities to the drugs sewn into his shorts.  Accordingly, the drugs passed into the jail despite his clothes being searched again after booking and before being stored away.  The drugs were only later discovered after Cornelius told a fellow inmate about the drugs and the inmate “snitched” on him. As a result, Cornelius was charged with possession of a controlled substance by an inmate.  (He also was charged with simple possession.)

Cornelius had a jury trial on his charges, and the jury convicted him.  On appeal, Cornelius mainly took exception with his conviction for possession of a controlled substance by an inmate.  He argued that he “did not meet the definition of ‘inmate’ or ‘prisoner’ at the time that he possessed the methamphetamine.”  His contention was that the only time that he had actual control of the drugs would have been while he was still at his home, before being searched and handcuffed by officers.  Once handcuffed, it was impossible for him to gain access to the drugs; therefore, it would have been impossible for him to possess the drugs as an “inmate” or “prisoner.”

That argument, of course, did not go anywhere.  The Superior Court resolved this argument by reliance on the definition of “inmate” in 18 Pa.C.S. § 5123(e).  The statute defined an inmate as an “offender who is committed to, under sentence to or confined in a penal or correctional institution.”  The Superior Court reasoned that “[o]nce Cornelius’s intake processing began, [he] was committed to the custody of the Warren County Jail” and “[a]t that time, [he] was still wearing his methamphetamine-lined shorts, and thus had a controlled substance on his person.”  Based on this much, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that Cornelius was in actual possession of a controlled substance while an inmate during intake.