The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Allen, holding that a constable has the authority to detain an individual if they are suspected of driving under the influence (“DUI”). This decision is significant because it expands the authority of constables (i.e. officials who are not police officers) to stop and detain citizens when they are suspected of committing a crime.
Commonwealth v. Allen
On April 24, 2017 at approximately 8:00 PM, Constables Metcalf and Gates with the Borough of New Oxford were at a residence serving two unrelated arrest warrants. While speaking with the occupant of the residence, Constable Metcalf saw a vehicle exit Route 30 at a high rate of speed, proceed airborne over an embankment, and enter a nearby yard. The vehicle travelled to the rear of the residence through the yard and stopped between the residence and a trailer.
The constables then went to the rear of the residence and observed the defendant in the driver’s seat. There were no other passengers in the vehicle. Constable Metcalf approached the vehicle as the defendant exited it, and the constable later testified that he smelled a strong odor of alcohol and marijuana as he approached the defendant. Additionally, he stated that the defendant was confused, slurring his speech, and had difficulties with his balance. It was his opinion that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol.
Constable Metcalf then contacted the Pennsylvania State Police. He was advised that a trooper would not be able to respond immediately because of other investigations. He then called the on-call Adams County Assistant District Attorney, who advised him to detain the defendant for further investigation for suspicion of DUI. Constable Metcalf then detained the defendant, placed him in the rear of his vehicle, and advised him of his Miranda rights. At the subsequent motion to suppress hearing, the constable testified that the defendant was not free to leave. Approximately an hour and a half later, a Pennsylvania State Trooper arrived and took over the investigation. Consequently, the defendant was charged with several counts of driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances and various summary traffic violations.
The Motion to Suppress
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence. He argued that any evidence obtained by the troopers ultimately stemmed from an unlawful detention because the constables were not police officers with the power to detain him. The trial court granted in part and denied in part his motion. Specifically, the court granted his motion to suppress statements made by the defendant during his conversation with Constable Metcalf, but it denied his motion to suppress all other DUI-related evidence that was acquired by the Pennsylvania State Police. Subsequently, the defendant elected to proceed by way of a non-jury trial which resulted in him being found guilty on one count of DUI.
After finding the defendant guilty, the trial court sentenced the defendant to a county intermediate punishment sentence of 60 months, six months of which were to be served in a restrictive setting. The defendant then filed a timely appeal. Specifically, the defendant alleged that the trial court wrongfully denied his motion to suppress because the constables illegally detained him.
What is a constable and what authority does a constable have to make arrests?
If you live in Philadelphia, you may not have ever encountered a constable because the Pennsylvania Legislature abolished constables for cities of the first class such as Philadelphia in 1970. Other counties, however, still use constables. Constables are elected to a six-year position.
Some of the powers bestowed upon constables are antiquated and not applicable to most of the citizens in the Commonwealth. For example, a constable has the authority to impound trespassing livestock. However, if you live in a borough in Pennsylvania such as New Oxford a constable has considerable power. There, a constable has the power to arrest for a breach of the peace, vagrancy, riotous or disorderly conduct, or public drunkenness. Additionally, a constable can arrest anyone who is engaged in an unlawful act that imperils the person’s security or endangers the property of the citizens; or violates any ordinance of the borough for which a fine or penalty is imposed. The “breach of peace” element of the statute is rather broad and can include motor vehicle violations. For example, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that an expired registration sticker is a “breach of the peace” offense.
What is a motion to suppress?
A motion to suppress is a motion that asks the trial court to prevent the Commonwealth from using evidence against the defendant because it was illegally obtained by the police. For example, a motion to suppress could be filed alleging that the police stopped the defendant and they did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to do so. The purpose of a motion to suppress is usually to suppress physical evidence such as contraband like drugs or an illegal gun or incriminating statements made by the defendant. However, a motion to suppress is not limited to just suppressing statements or physical evidence, which is important in a DUI case.
In a DUI case, if the police illegally stop you, you may be able to suppress the police officer’s observations. This is particularly relevant in DUI cases where a police officer will testify to how the defendant acted after he was stopped by the police. For example, an officer might testify to the defendant’s balance; whether he smelled of alcohol or marijuana; whether he had blood shot eyes; how he or she performed during field sobriety tests, and other observations which suggested that the defendant was intoxicated and unsafe to drive. If a defendant in a DUI case was illegally stopped, not only could the defense attorney try to suppress physical evidence like drugs, alcohol, or the defendant’s blood test results, or any incriminating statements, but it also may be possible to suppress the officer’s observations of the defendant. This could be crucial in a DUI trial because a defendant can be found guilty of DUI based on an officer’s observations even if the prosecution does not introduce any drugs or alcohol in its case-in-chief.
The Superior Court’s Ruling
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. In its opinion, the Superior Court stated that the defendant’s actions amounted to a clear breach of the peace. The Superior Court characterized the defendant’s actions as “patently disruptive, intrusive, and dangerous.” Further, as stated above, motor vehicle violations can qualify as “breaches of the peace,” and the defendant’s actions indisputably qualified as motor vehicle violations. Because a constable has the statutory authority to detain individuals in boroughs for breaches of peace and because the defendant committed these acts in the borough of New Oxford, the defendant was not entitled to relief, and his conviction will stand.
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