PA Superior Court: Police May Stop and Search You If You’re Bleeding from a Gunshot Wound

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Edwards, holding that Philadelphia Police did not violate the defendant’s rights when they stopped and searched him because he was walking down the street while bleeding from a gunshot wound. The Superior Court relied on the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement in finding that police did not violate the defendant's rights when they stopped him even though they did not see him personally engaged in criminal activity. 

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Edwards

In Edwards, Philadelphia Police Officers were on routine patrol at around 1 am in the Kensington area. One of the officers noticed a black male, the defendant, limping in the bike lane on the west side of the street. He was walking towards the police car. As he got closer to the car, one of the officers noticed that he had blood coming down the left side of his leg. After noticing the blood, the officer attempted to get the defendant’s attention, but he ignored the officer and kept limping at a fast pace. The defendant ignored the officers as they backed up their car and tried to talk to him.

Eventually, police exited the patrol car and told the defendant to stop multiple times. The defendant initially did not stop, but he eventually turned and faced the officers. However, he continued to back away from them even after being told they were only interested in bringing him to the hospital for his leg injury. He told the officer he had been shot by a Hispanic male around the corner and that the officers should go look for the male.

The officers moved closer to the defendant, and the defendant then reached for his right jacket pocket while backing away. Based on this movement, the officers believed that the defendant was trying to hide something in his right jacket pocket. The officers also testified that the area was a high crime area known for drug sales, stabbings, shootings, and robberies. Therefore, the officers frisked the defendant, felt a hard object that they knew to be a gun in the right pocket, and then removed the gun from the defendant’s jacket. Police arrested the defendant and charged him with various VUFA charges, including possessing a concealed firearm without a license, possessing a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia, and felon in possession of a firearm. 

The Motion to Suppress the Gun

After prosecutors charged the defendant with various gun charges, the defendant’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the gun. The motion to suppress alleged that police did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop and search the defendant because they did not see him engaged in any criminal activity and he did not ask for their help. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding both that police actually had probable cause to arrest him and that the police were justified in their actions due to the community caretaker doctrine. After the trial court denied the motion to suppress, the defendant proceeded by way of bench trial. The trial judge found him guilty and sentenced him to state prison after it was revealed at sentencing that he had shot himself. The trial judge also made negative comments at sentencing about the fact that although defense counsel highlighted the defendant's extensive family support, the defendant's mother was present but did not speak on his behalf. 

The Criminal Appeal

Following sentencing, the defendant filed a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant challenged both the denial of the Motion to Suppress as well as the trial court’s sentence. Unfortunately for the defendant, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling both with respects to the Motion to Suppress and the sentencing issue. The Superior Court relied heavily on the community caretaker doctrine as explained by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the recent case of Commonwealth v. Livingstone.

What is the community caretaker exception?

In general, the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions require the police to get a search warrant before stopping and searching someone. However, there are many exceptions to this general rule. For example, police do not have to obtain a search warrant in order to stop someone on the street and conduct a frisk when they have reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity. Police also may conduct a full search of a pedestrian when they have probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime. In addition to these exceptions for investigatory stops, the Supreme Court has also created the community caretaker doctrine or community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. 

The community caretaker doctrine anticipates the possibility that police may be motivated by a desire to render aid or assistance rather than the investigation of criminal activity. Appellate courts have reasoned that police do not just investigate and prosecute crime – they also provide first aid, intervene in crises, and maintain the peace. Accordingly, police do not always need to get a warrant in order to take action when they believe that someone is in need of assistance.

In order for this exception to apply, the police must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance. When police can do that, they may be justified in conducting a stop or search without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that criminal activity is afoot. The police action must also be independent of the investigation of criminal activity, meaning it cannot be a pretext for conducting a search without the necessary level of suspicion. Finally, the level of intrusion must be commensurate with the perceived need for assistance. Thus, in Livingstone, the Supreme Court summarized the rule as follows: 

“To summarize, in order for a seizure to be justified under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine, the officer must point to specific, objective, and articulable facts which would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that assistance was needed; the police action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence, and based on a consideration of the surrounding circumstances, the action taken by police must be tailored to rendering assistance or mitigating the peril.” 

The Superior Court's Decision

Here, the Superior Court found that the police acted reasonably and pursuant to the community caretaking doctrine. They saw the defendant limping, with a bloody leg, at 1:20 am in a dangerous area. They approached and offered medical assistance. The court found that they would have been neglecting their duties had they not done so. Further, the officer identified specific, objective, and articulable facts that would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen was in need of assistance. The court also found that they were not looking for criminal evidence, meaning their actions were independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence. They were planning on taking the defendant to the hospital. They only frisked the defendant because he bladed his body away from the officer and placed his hand in his pocket as if he were trying to conceal something. Finally, the level of intrusion was commensurate with the need for assistance. The police had merely stopped to offer aid. Only after the defendant acted strangely by backing away, turning his body, and reaching in his pocket, did the police conduct any kind of search. The court found that that search was a legitimate safety frisk and upheld the decision of the trial court. 

The Superior Court also rejected the defendant’s sentencing challenge. Here, the defendant argued that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing him when the trial judge pointed out that the defendant’s mother was present for sentencing but did not speak on his behalf. After the trial judge made that remark, the defense attorney asked to have the mother speak, but the trial judge refused to permit her to speak. The defense ordinarily must file a post-sentence motion explaining any challenges to a sentence in order to be able to appeal the discretionary aspects of a sentence, but here, the Superior Court found that the issue was not waived for appeal because the defendant’s attorney had attempted to call the mother as a witness but been prevented from doing so. The Superior Court reached the merits of the issue, but affirmed the sentence because the judge considered a number of factors and did not base the sentence only on the mother’s failure to testify at sentencing. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion.  

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