PA Superior Court Continues to Struggle With Meaning Of "Stop" 

Motions to Suppress in Gun and Drug Cases

The first line of defense to criminal charges like gun possession or drug possession is often the Motion to Suppress. If the police stopped or searched you or your belongings without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, it may be possible to have the evidence suppressed. Once the evidence is suppressed, the Commonwealth would not be able to proceed to trial in a case involving a possessory offense, and the case could be thrown out. In cases involving illegal stops or searches of pedestrians, the first thing that the defense must typically show is that the police actually stopped or “seized” the defendant under either Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution or the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

What makes a stop a stop? 

As recently as three months ago, in the case of Commonwealth v. Morrison, the Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that when a police officer says stop, that means stop. Thus, a reasonable person would not feel free to leave, and the encounter rises to the legal level of a Terry stop. In the case of Commonwealth v. Newsome, a different panel of the Superior Court has reached a different conclusion. In Newsome, the Superior Court held that the mere use of the word “stop” does not necessarily transform a police encounter into a Terry stop requiring reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Instead, whether police conduct rises to the level of a stop depends on the totality of the circumstances and the specific facts of each case. 

Commonwealth v. Newsome

In Newsome, the defendant was arrested in Philadelphia and charged with various Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (“VUFA”). The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, and the court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress. At the hearing, a Philadelphia Police Lieutenant testified that he received an anonymous radio call that a group of males were outside on the 2000 block of Croskey Street passing around a gun. The officer drove to the scene. When he arrived, he saw a group of men huddled together. Two of the men left the group and walked to the other side of the street.

The defendant was one of the two men who crossed the street and began to walk southbound down Croskey street. The officer exited his marked patrol car and asked the defendant to “come here” so he could talk to him, but the defendant refused and continued walking. The officer began to radio for backup to stop the defendant when he observed the defendant reach into his waistband, remove an object that looked like a gun, and place it in a nearby flowerpot. Although the defendant discarded the gun in view of the officer, the gun could be suppressed if the defense could show that the defendant discarded the gun only in response to some sort of unlawful illegal police activity or seizure. 

A different police officer recovered the firearm, and the police arrested the defendant. On cross examination, the officer testified that he approached the defendant and the other men because he believed that they may have been violating Philadelphia’s 10:30 pm curfew. He also testified that he had not seen the defendant with any bulges or weapons on his person and that the defendant did not make any suspicious movements prior to putting the gun in the flowerpot. 

The trial court found the officer’s testimony credible, but it granted the Motion to Suppress. The trial court concluded that by saying stop and asking the defendant to come talk to him, the officer had stopped the defendant and legally seized him. Thus, the officer was required to have reasonable suspicion in order to make a stop, and the officer did not have that level of suspicion because he did not observe the defendant doing anything suspicious. Further, it is well-settled in Pennsylvania that an anonymous radio call cannot provide the basis for reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and even accepting the radio call as true, the radio call did not identify the defendant as the person with the gun.

The Superior Court’s Decision On Appeal

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision and concluded that the officer had not legally stopped the defendant. Instead, the officer had attempted to have a mere encounter with the defendant, and a mere encounter need not be supported by any articulable level of suspicion. In determining whether the officer conducted a stop, the court noted that it must evaluate all of the circumstances “evidencing a show of authority or exercise of force, including the demeanor of the police officer, the manner of expression used by the officer in addressing the citizen, and the content of the interrogatories or statements.” Courts must also consider the number of officers present, whether the officer accuses the citizen of criminal activity, the officer’s demeanor and voice, the location and timing of the interaction, the visible presence of weapons on the officer, and the questions asked. Where a reasonable person would not feel free to leave due to the behavior of the officer, the encounter rises to the level of a stop and requires at least reasonable suspicion. 

Here, the Superior Court found that the officer had not stopped the defendant and reversed the decision of the trial court. The Superior Court found that it was only a mere encounter because the officer simply exited the vehicle and asked the defendant to come here so he could talk to him. Although he was in full uniform and in a marked car, he did not engage the lights and sirens, display his weapon, or tell the defendant that he was not free to leave. He also did not block the defendant from moving in any particular direction. He did admit asking the defendant to stop two or three times, but he did not threaten any consequences for non-compliance or use an authoritative tone. Further, the defendant clearly felt no compulsion to stop because he continued walking away. Only after the defendant discarded the gun did the police arrest the defendant. Therefore, the defendant was not seized and officers were not required to have any level of suspicion.

THE EVIDENTIARY CONSEQUENCES OF AN ILLEGAL STOP

Motions to Suppress guns can be difficult to win, but police are required to follow the law. Although judges may be reluctant to suppress illegal firearms and large amounts of drugs, it remains the law that police must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause prior to making a stop or conducting a search. When the police stop or search someone illegally, the Fourth Amendment requires that the evidence be suppressed, meaning that it may not be used at trial. However, it is critical that the defense establish that the police conducted a stop or a search in order to win a Motion to Suppress. Clearly, the Superior Court’s decision in Newsome conflicts with recent precedent in which the Court held that the use of the word stop transforms an encounter into a Terry stop. Therefore, the question of whether a defendant is stopped for purposes of the Fourth Amendment remains highly fact specific. In many cases, a successful motion to suppress will require skillful cross examination by the defense in order to establish that based on the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to leave. This is particularly true in cases involving “Forced Abandonment” in which a defendant who has been illegally seized discards a gun or drugs prior to being physically restrained by the police. 

AWARD-WINNING PHILADELPHIA CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYERS

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended clients against gun charges, drug charges, and other possession of contraband cases in preliminary hearings, pre-trial motions to suppress, and at trial. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session with one of our award-winning defense attorneys. 

Read the Opinion: Commonwealth v. Newsome