PA Superior Court: Police May Not Use Pretext to Stop Defendant One Month After Drug Sales

Superior Court Enforces Limits on Police Stops

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just held that in the absence of more recent criminal activity, police may not conduct a Terry stop of a defendant for selling drugs one month after the defendant sold the drugs. In Commonwealth v. Parker, police officers in Lancaster County investigated drug sales in June and July of 2014. During that investigation, the defendant, who police knew only by the street name “Heart,” allegedly sold drugs to an undercover police officer. The officers recorded a description of Heart’s appearance and that he walked with a limp, but they did not attempt to stop or arrest him at that time.

In August, one of the officers from the drug surveillance operation saw the defendant near a local McDonald’s. The officer testified that he was 100% sure that the defendant was “Heart,” meaning he was the same person who had sold drugs to the undercover officer. The officer then made the decision to stop the defendant in order to find out his real name. The officer, however, did not observe the defendant doing anything illegal that day.  

Despite the fact that the defendant had not done anything illegal that day, two officers stopped the defendant as he was walking away from the McDonald’s. One of the officers who stopped him told him that there had been a disturbance at the McDonald’s and that he believed the defendant was part of the disturbance. He asked the defendant for his name, date of birth, address, telephone number, and social security number because the defendant did not have identification on him. After the officers confirmed the defendant’s identity, they released him. The officers agreed at the motion to suppress that the only reason they stopped him was to identify him for purposes of their drug investigation, and one of the officers specifically testified that the stop was part of a “ruse.”

Even Identifying Information Can Be Incriminating

Although the information obtained by police during the stop may seem relatively harmless, it turned out to be very incriminating. Police had used the phone number given by the defendant during the stop to set up the narcotics transactions earlier in the summer. Accordingly, despite learning only relatively basic identifying information, the phone number turned out to be very incriminating because it connected the defendant to the drug sales and increased the likelihood that the police were correct in believing him to be "Heart." 

The Motion to Suppress

Eventually, police arrested defendant Parker and charged him with Possession with the Intent to Deliver and Criminal Use of a Communications Facility. Prior to trial, Parker moved to suppress the information obtained by police during the pretextual stop, including the incriminating phone number. Parker’s attorneys argued that the police did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop Parker on the day of the incident. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The trial judge found that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant because they had seen him sell drugs in June and July. The defendant was eventually convicted of drug charges following a jury trial, and he appealed the denial of the motion to suppress.

Types of Police Encounters at Issue on Appeal

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. The court noted that there are three types of police encounters. The most restrictive encounter is a “mere encounter.” A mere encounter does not require any level of reasonable suspicion or probable cause because the suspect is not compelled to stop or searched. Thus, if police had merely encountered defendant Parker, then the information they obtained could not be suppressed because police may conduct a mere encounter without any level of suspicion. 

The next level of encounter is an “investigative detention.” An investigative detention, often called a Terry stop, requires police to have reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion means that the police have specific, articulable facts leading the officer to believe that criminal activity is afoot. Here, the Commonwealth certainly argued that police would have had reasonable suspicion from observing the defendant engaged in drug sales earlier in the summer. Parker's attorneys, however, argued that the police did not have reasonable suspicion because the drugs sales did not take place that day. 

Finally, the most restrictive type of seizure, which was not really at issue in this case, is a full-blown arrest. An arrest requires probable cause, which means the officer is aware of facts making it objectively more likely than not that the defendant committed a crime. Whether or not an arrest has occurred typically involves an analysis of whether a reasonable person in the defendant's position would believe themselves to be under arrest. Some of the many factors in whether a stop is an arrest could include whether police used handcuffs, displayed weapons, told the suspect he or she was under arrest, gave Miranda warnings, or transported the suspect to the police station. 

Investigative Detention

The Superior Court agreed with the trial court that the defendant was subject only to an investigate detention. He was stopped and asked for information, but he was not handcuffed, transported, interrogated for a lengthy period of time, or told he was under arrest. However, he was not free to leave because he was stopped by two uniformed officers who told him that he was suspected of criminal activity and demanded information from him. Although the request for identification alone does not convert a mere encounter into an investigatory detention, the request for identification coupled with the police officers telling the defendant that they suspected him of wrongdoing would lead a reasonable person in his position to feel that he was not free to leave. Therefore, police were required to at least have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot in order to stop him.

Police Did Not Have Reasonable Suspicion

The Superior Court found that police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Mr. Parker because although he may have engaged in criminal activity in June, they had not seen him do anything at all on the day that they stopped him. He was simply walking down the street, and his lack of criminal activity prompted the police to invent a pretext that he had been part of a disturbance at the McDonald’s. Accordingly, the results of the illegal stop must be suppressed. Therefore, Parker will receive a new trial in the lower court at which the illegally obtained evidence cannot be introduced. 

Although the opinion is certainly of benefit to Parker and others in similar situations, the Superior Court's reasoning is unclear. The opinion focused almost entirely on whether the stop was a mere encounter or a Terry stop, and the Superior Court failed to fully explain why the police no longer had reasonable suspicion. Clearly, if Parker had sold drugs to the police earlier in the summer, then the police would have had reasonable suspicion and probable cause to stop and/or arrest Parker at that time. Probable cause, however, can become "stale." If police do not act on information quickly enough, then they may no longer be able to act on it. Police may have been able to obtain an arrest warrant for him, but they did not have the right to stop Parker without a warrant more than a month after the prior sales. Further, the court could have been concerned about the police use of lies to justify the stop and interrogation. 

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If you are charged with selling or possessing illegal drugs, you need an experienced drug charges attorney who can investigate and evaluate your case, determine if your rights have been violated, and provide you with all of the options and a strong defense. You do not have to plead guilty just because the police found drugs on or near you or in a vehicle. The prosecution must prove that the search was legal and that the drugs were yours. We have the experience to challenge them every step of the way. Call 267-225-2545 for a confidential criminal defense strategy session.