PA Courts Adopt Public Servant Exception to Warrant Requirement

The Public Servant Exception to the Warrant Requirement

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Criminal Defense Attorney

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Livingstone, holding that although Pennsylvania has a community caretaker and public safety exception to the warrant requirement, police officers must be able to provide specific and articulable facts for why a person may be in need of assistance prior to conducting an investigative detention. In other words, police officers may stop a person if they believe the person is in distress or that there is an emergency situation, but the police must be able to provide specific reasons for why they believe an emergency situation exists, they may not conduct a stop as a pretext to investigate criminal activity, and the stop may only as intrusive as the circumstances require. 

Commonwealth v. Livingstone

In Livingstone, a Pennsylvania State Trooper in Erie County saw the defendant’s vehicle pulled over on the shoulder of the highway. The engine was running, but the hazard lights were not activated. The Trooper activated his emergency lights, and with his passenger side window down, pulled alongside the stopped vehicle. The Trooper then began to ask the defendant some questions, and he eventually reached the conclusion that she was under the influence of a controlled substance. Accordingly, he arrested the defendant and charged her with DUI.

Motion to Suppress

The defendant subsequently filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the blood test, arguing that she was stopped without reasonable suspicion or probable cause when the Trooper pulled up next to her and activated his emergency lights. The trial court denied the motion and found that after the Trooper saw the vehicle on the side of the interstate, the Trooper had a duty to determine if the defendant was in need of help. The trial court also found that the Trooper engaged only in a “mere encounter,” meaning he did not need reasonable suspicion or probable cause. With the motion to suppress denied, the court found the defendant guilty of DUI and sentenced her to a period of house arrest.

The defendant appealed. After the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review. On appeal, the Supreme Court recognized that the case presented two distinct issues: first, was the defendant seized when the Trooper pulled up next to her with his emergency lights on, and second, if the defendant was seized, was the Trooper justified in stopping her.

The Court found that the first issue was relatively simple; the defendant was seized when a marked State Police vehicle pulled up next to her, rolled the window down, and activated its overhead lights. The Court emphasized both that official driver’s license materials provided by PennDOT instruct motorists that they should not leave when a police officer activates his or her emergency lights and that Pennsylvania law makes it a felony to flee from a police officer after the officer signals for the motorist to stop. Because no reasonable person would feel free to leave when a State Police Trooper activates his or her emergency lights, the defendant was seized when the Trooper pulled up next to her and activated the lights.

Second, the Court found that the Trooper did not have the legal authority to make the stop because the Trooper lacked sufficient information to determine that the defendant was in need of assistance. Once a court determines that police have seized someone for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, the prosecution generally must show that the police had either reasonable suspicion or probable cause depending on how extensive the stop was. In order to support a Terry stop (“an investigate detention”), the police must have reasonable suspicion. In order to arrest someone, the police must have probable cause to make an arrest.

Here, the Trooper did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause at the time of the stop because he had no indication that criminal activity was afoot or that a crime had occurred solely from the fact that the defendant had pulled over. However, the Court recognized a “community caretaking doctrine” or public safety exception. The community caretaking doctrine applies in three circumstances. First, there is an emergency aid exception. Second, there is an automobile impoundment/inventory exception, and third, there is a public safety exception. For any of these exceptions to apply, the officer must be acting out of a motivation to render aid or assistance rather than an attempt to investigate criminal activity.

The Public Safety Exception (Public Servant Exception)

Prior to this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had never specifically addressed the public safety exception. The Court recognized that the police do not exist solely to investigate and prevent criminal activity. Instead, they are also charged with ensuring the safety and welfare of the Commonwealth’s citizens. At the same time, the Fourth Amendment requires that police officers not conduct warrantless searches without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Therefore, the Court sought to employ a test for when police can conduct a seizure of this nature that would both allow the police to help members of the public and protect the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

Can The Police Conduct A Stop If They Think Someone Needs Help? 

The Court held that in order for the public servant exception (public safety exception) to apply, the Commonwealth must be able to satisfy three requirements. First, police officers must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance. Further, the Court found that the Trooper in this case could not do so because there were too many reasons why the defendant could have pulled over on the side of the road. The Court noted that the defendant could have needed to look at a map, answer or make a telephone call, send a text message, change an address in a navigation system, clean up a spill, or retrieve something from her purse or the glove compartment. Pulling over to the side of the road to do these types of things should be encouraged.

Second, in order for the exception to apply, the police caretaking action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence. This does not mean that an officer must completely ignore the nature of his or her role in law enforcement, but it does mean that the courts must meticulously consider the facts and carefully apply the exception in a manner that mitigates the risk of abuse and ensures that police do not use the exception as a pretext for obtaining evidence without a warrant.

Third, the level of the intrusion must be commensurate with the perceived need for assistance. This requires the suppression court to evaluate the circumstances surrounding the seizure, including but not necessarily limited to, the degree of authority or force displayed, the lengthy of the seizure, and the availability of alternative means of assistance.

Here, the Court found that the Trooper did not have any reason to believe that the defendant needed assistance. He had not received a report that a motorist needed help, he did not observe anything that indicated there was a problem with her vehicle, the weather was fine, and the defendant did not have her hazard lights on. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the blood test and other evidence seized as a result of the illegal stop be suppressed.


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