PA Superior Court: If A Police Officer Says Stop, That’s A Stop

What makes an encounter with the police a stop? 

The past few years have seen a number of questionable appellate opinions in which courts have suggested that a person may not necessarily be stopped for Fourth Amendment purposes even when a police officer orders the person to stop. Today, the Pennsylvania Superior Court clarified the obvious and reiterated what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already found: when a police officer says stop, it’s a stop. In Commonwealth v. Morrison, the Court ordered the suppression of a firearm, finding that a reasonable person would not feel free to leave after being ordered by police to stop.

Commonwealth v. Morrison

In Morrison, the defendant was arrested and charged with various gun charges, including VUFA § 6105 (persons not to possess firearms), VUFA § 6106 (carrying a concealed firearm without a permit), and VUFA § 6108 (carrying a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia). The defendant’s arrest stemmed from an encounter with Philadelphia police officers which took place in January 2015. The defendant moved to suppress the gun, arguing that police did not observe the gun in plain view until he had been stopped and detained without reasonable suspicion. At the suppression hearing, officers testified that they were on patrol in Philadelphia in police uniforms and a marked patrol car. At around 8 pm, they received a radio call from an unknown source which indicated that a nearby store had been robbed at gun point. The radio call described the robbers as two black males wearing black hoodies, blue jeans, and masks.

Five minutes later, the officers saw the defendant and another gentleman walking about five blocks away from where the robbery occurred. Although the defendant was a black male in a black hoodie, the defendant was not wearing the clothing described in the radio call. Instead of wearing blue jeans, he was wearing gray sweatpants. Nonetheless, the officers slowly approached the two men, stopped the police car about five feet away from them, and got out of the car.

After getting out of the car, one of the officers told the men to stop. The man who was walking with the defendant stopped, but the defendant did not. He appeared nervous, turned his back to the police car, and slowly walked away from the officers. The other police officer repeated the command to stop, and the defendant finally stopped. Notably, the defendant never attempted to run. Once he stopped, the officers ordered him to take his hands out of his pockets. The defendant did so, and the officers soon noticed the handle of a black handgun conveniently sticking out of the his pocket. The officers also left the information that the defendant supposedly turned and walked away from them out of the various police reports that they prepared.        

Although the defendant did not match the flash description, the officers left key details out of the police reports, and the information provided by the radio call was entirely anonymous and unconfirmed, the trial court denied the motion to suppress the firearm. The court concluded that the interaction between the officers and the defendant did not rise to the level of a “stop.” Instead, the interaction was only a mere encounter. Further, the trial court concluded that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant because he partially matched the description in the anonymous radio call, appeared nervous, and attempted to walk away.   

Standards for Police Encounters

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed. The court started by noting that there are three types of police encounters. The first of these is a “mere encounter” (or request for information) which need not be supported by any level of suspicion, but carries no official compulsion to stop or respond. The second, an “investigative detention” must be supported by reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of arrest. An investigative detention is considered a stop, and it is commonly referred to as a Terry stop. Finally, an arrest or “custodial detention” must be supported by probable cause.

An investigative detention is less than the equivalent of an arrest, but it occurs when police take action which would make a reasonable person not feel free to leave. Although previous Superior Court opinions have implicitly suggested that an encounter may not be a stop solely because the police say “stop,” the Court in Morrison recognized the obvious: when the police tell someone to stop, no reasonable person in that position would feel as though they were free to leave. Accordingly, the defendant was clearly stopped as soon as uniformed, armed officers exited the vehicle and told the defendant to stop.

Because the defendant was stopped for Fourth Amendment purposes and subjected to an investigative detention, the police were required to have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity. However, the Court found that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion because nervousness and slowly walking away from the police is not indicative of criminal activity. Further, the radio call did not provide the officers with reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant and recover the gun because the radio call was anonymous, unconfirmed, and lacking in detail, and the defendant did not even match the description in the call. The call indicated that the perpetrators of the alleged robbery were wearing jeans, and the defendant was wearing sweatpants. Therefore, the officers had stopped the defendant without reasonable suspicion prior to seeing the gun, making the gun the fruit of the poisonous tree. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the gun be suppressed and excluded from evidence.   

The Consequences Of An Illegal Stop

It goes without saying that courts are reluctant to suppress guns. However, 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. Morrison reaffirms that in order to convict a defendant of possessing contraband like drugs or a gun, the prosecution must be able to show that the evidence was obtained pursuant to a legal search and seizure. Further, Morrison is important because it clarifies that a person is stopped when the police begin issuing commands like “stop” which would make a reasonable person feel that he or she was not free to leave.

Philadelphia-Criminal-Defense-Lawyer.jpg

Award-Winning 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.