Limerick man faces prison stint on pot charge but remains free on appeal

NORRISTOWN – A Limerick man faces several years in state prison for having “a large amount of marijuana” and packaging materials in his home.

Joshua Paul Whittaker, 34, of the first block of Springford Road, was sentenced in Montgomery County Court to five years in a state correctional facility, to be followed by two years’ probation, in connection with an October 2011 incident at his residence. The sentence was imposed by Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio, who convicted Whittaker of charges of possession with intent to deliver marijuana, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, tampering with physical evidence, obstructing administration of law and resisting arrest during a non-jury trial in May.

However, the judge allowed Whittaker, who is represented by defense lawyer Saul Solomon, to remain free pending his state appeal concerning various pretrial rulings in his case. Those appellate decisions will ultimately determine Whittaker’s fate.

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Last August, Judge Thomas C. Branca ruled during a pretrial hearing that Whittaker could stand trial on the drug-related charges after he determined warrantless searches of Whittaker’s home by police were proper. Whittaker, through his lawyer, had argued that police didn’t have sufficient probable cause to conduct warrantless searches of his home during the Oct. 5, 2011, investigation.

“Given the strong likelihood that evidence could be lost or destroyed in the time it took (police) to secure a search warrant, exigent circumstances supported the warrantless search of the interior of the house for anyone who might destroy evidence,” Branca wrote in a previous court order.

Assistant District Attorney Heather Hines fought Whittaker’s request to dismiss the charges, arguing the police searches were proper.

Limerick police, in an affidavit of probable cause, alleged that ultimately “a large amount of marijuana was found in the toilet bowl in the bathroom where the defendant had attempted to destroy evidence by flushing it down the toilet.”

Authorities alleged they also found drug packaging materials, a scale, commonly used to weigh narcotics, several glass marijuana pipes, several firearms and $4,000 cash inside the home.

According to testimony and court documents, an investigation began about 9:30 p.m. Oct. 5 when police who had been investigating an earlier alleged hit and run crash in Royersford discovered the suspect Subaru vehicle, unoccupied but with extensive front end damage, parked in the driveway of Whittaker’s home.

A record check determined the vehicle was registered to a man who resided at an address other than Whittaker’s home, according to court papers.

Police, seeing a light on inside the home, knocked on the front door but got no response. Police then walked around the back of the house to search for anyone who might be linked to the Subaru and observed parted curtains in a rear window, according to court testimony.

As police looked through the parted curtains, they observed a marijuana stem on a tray on a coffee table, Limerick Police Sgt. Robert Matalavage alleged in the criminal complaint. Police also noticed a two-foot tall potted marijuana plant outside next to a rear door of the residence and a barrel of 400-watt light bulbs, according to testimony.

“I recognized these bulbs from my training and experience as being those type of bulbs customarily used in the growing of marijuana,” Matalavage alleged.

Police knocked on the rear door, which was unlocked, and got no response. “Concerned that anyone hiding inside may try to destroy any potential evidence” and that the driver of the Subaru might be in the house, three officers entered the home to see if anyone was inside, according to testimony and court documents.

When no one was found inside, police left the residence without seizing anything and with the intention to obtain a search warrant for the home, court papers alleged. At that point, Whittaker arrived home and was told by police that he could not enter the home as it was sealed pending a judge’s approval for a search warrant, according to court documents.

“He then broke into a trot towards the front door and unlocked it,” Matalavage alleged, adding Whittaker ignored police commands, entered the home and locked the door from the inside.

Police then entered the home by the rear door and determined Whittaker had locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out, according to the arrest affidavit. Police forcibly entered the bathroom and used a Taser to subdue Whittaker and take him into custody, according to court papers.

Shortly thereafter police obtained a warrant to search the residence. That’s when police found the marijuana in the toilet bowl and the other incriminating items inside the home, court papers indicate.

Judge Branca ruled that the initial warrantless search to look for persons inside the home, and the second warrantless search, under the belief Whittaker allegedly entered the home to destroy evidence, were “supported by exigent circumstances.”

Follow Carl Hessler Jr. on Twitter @MontcoCourtNews