PA Superior Court: Pulling Over to the Side of Road Is Not Suspicious

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Hampton, holding that police illegally stopped the defendant by physically blocking in his car after the officer saw the defendant do nothing more than pull over to the side of the road. In Hampton, the Court rejected the idea that an officer can stop someone under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement just because they pulled over to the side of the road.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Hampton

In Hampton, a Montgomery County, PA  police officer was on patrol in a marked vehicle at approximately 3:22 am. The officer saw a vehicle drive by her, turn, and then pull over into a field on a property belonging to a church. The driver, who was later identified as the defendant, stopped his car in the grass in front of the church’s office building. The officer pulled behind the car, but she did not activate her lights or sirens. She did, however, park her car in such a way that the car blocked the defendant’s ability to drive back onto the road. The defendant and his passenger eventually got out of their vehicle, and after an interaction with the officer, the officer ended up arresting the defendant for Driving Under the Influence.

The Motion to Suppress

After prosecutors charged the defendant with DUI, the defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence. The defendant argued that the officer stopped the defendant by physically blocking his car with her car without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the officer admitted that she had “stopped” the defendant and that her car physically blocked his. She also admitted that she had not seen any evidence of ongoing criminal activity or motor vehicle code violations. However, she testified that she pulled in behind the defendant because she was concerned that he could be having some kind of medical emergency or car trouble. She also had not activated her lights or sirens. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. Because this was the defendant’s third DUI offense, the court sentenced the defendant to 1 – 5 years’ state incarceration.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court ultimately overturned the conviction and found that the trial court should have granted the motion.

First, the Superior Court concluded that although the officer did not activate her lights or sirens or specifically tell the defendant to stop, the officer had stopped the defendant by physically blocking the movement of his car. Because the officer had conducted a stop for Fourth Amendment purposes, the officer was required to have reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or some other exception to the warrant requirement.

Second, the Superior Court concluded that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop the defendant because the officer candidly testified at the motion to suppress hearing that she did not see any criminal activity of any kind.

Third, the Superior Court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the stop was justified by the community caretaking exception. Under the community caretaking exception, police may conduct a warrantless search or seizure under limited circumstances such as to render emergency aid when such aid is reasonably necessary. In order for the exception to apply, the officer’s actions must be motivated by a desire to render aid or assistance rather than the investigation of criminal activity. Additionally, the officer 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. Thus, the officer must have reasonably believed that an actual emergency was ongoing.

Here, the Superior Court rejected the application of the community caretaking exception because the defendant did nothing more than pull over to the side of the road. Such behavior is encouraged and perfectly consistent with innocent activity. A motorist may pull over the road to answer the phone, rest for a moment, check a map, or for any number of other legitimate reasons. Therefore, the community caretaking exception did not apply. Accordingly, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to grant the motion to suppress.

This is a good case for Fourth Amendment rights because the Superior Court recognized the obvious fact that when a police officer in a marked car blocks someone’s ability to drive away, the officer has stopped that person for Fourth Amendment purposes. In many cases, courts attempt to characterize contact between police and defendants as a “mere encounter” which does not require any level of suspicion. Here, the Court recognized that any reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to leave and therefore a stop had occurred. 

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