PA Supreme Court: Concerns About Officer Safety Do Not Justify Suspicionless Seizure of Motorist

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

It should go without saying that the police cannot stop, search, and interrogate people without a warrant or some prior observation of potential ongoing criminal activity. Nonetheless, trial and appellate courts throughout the state  state of Pennsylvania often attempt to justify coercive police detentions which occurred without reasonable suspicion or probable cause by finding that the police did not actually “stop” the defendant for Fourth Amendment purposes.

If the court can find that the police conducted a mere encounter and had to take some common sense steps to ensure officer safety, the court may try to justify a decision denying a motion to suppress. Unfortunately, many of these opinions ignore the fact that when a police officer approaches a person and begins asking questions or issuing commands, that person would never reasonably feel free to terminate the encounter and leave without following the orders of the officer.

In the recent case of Commonwealth v. Adams, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reiterated once again that police cannot conduct a stop without reasonable suspicion, and a stop occurs when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave due to some action taken by the officer. Further, there is no reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop when the suspect has done nothing more than park his or her car in a commercial parking lot late at night despite the fact that it may be a little bit unusual to park there. Instead, police must have specific, articulable facts from which they can conclude that criminal activity may be afoot, and those facts must be based on more than mere speculation. Only then may police conduct a stop and potentially take actions related to officer safety such as frisking the defendant or limiting the defendant’s freedom of movement in some way.

Commonwealth v. Adams

In the case of Commonwealth v. Adams, a Pleasant Hills, PA police officer was on routine patrol at around 3 am. He observed a white Dodge Dart enter a parking lot that served two closed businesses - a hobby store and a pizza shop. The car drove behind the buildings. The officer waited to see if the car came back and left the lot, but it did not. The officer then drove behind the parking lot to locate the vehicle because he wanted to “simply check why a car drove behind two dark, closed businesses” at 3 am. He testified at a motion to suppress hearing that he recognized the potential for drug activity or an attempted burglary.

After driving behind the buildings, the officer saw the car parked behind the pizza shop. The car was off. There were no “no parking signs” behind the building, but there were also no marked parking spaces. The officer did not believe that this area would generally be used as public parking. Instead, he believed that it could be an area for deliveries and employee parking.

Despite having seen nothing more than a car parking in a parking lot early in the morning, the officer pulled his marked police cruiser behind the car. He did not activate his lights or sirens, but he did call for backup. Prior to backup arriving, he exited his police car and walked up to the parked vehicle. He shined his flashlight into the vehicle as he approached. When he reached the driver’s side door, he knocked on the window. The defendant, who was seated in the driver’s seat, opened the car door. The officer physically closed the car door himself, preventing the defendant from getting out of the car. He instructed the defendant to lower the window, and the defendant explained that he could not do so because he did not have the keys to the car. The officer, however, could see the keys on the floor in the back of the car. The officer then remained outside of the car until backup arrived, which was approximately a minute later.

Once backup arrived, the officer opened the defendant’s door and began to speak with him. The defendant told him that he owned the pizza shop and had just come from inside. Obviously, this was not true. The officer smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath and asked the defendant to perform field sobriety tests. The defendant complied and “failed.” From there, things deteriorated until the defendant was eventually formally arrested and charged with DUI.

The Motion to Suppress

Following the filing of DUI charges against him, the defendant filed a motion to suppress. He argued that the police officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights by stopping him without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The trial court heard the motion to suppress and denied it, finding that the interaction between the defendant and the officer was only a mere encounter which did not require any level of suspicion. The court found that the officer was justified in preventing the defendant from opening the door by concerns about officer safety because the officer was alone, it was late at night, and the defendant was physically bigger than the officer. With the motion to suppress denied, the court found the defendant guilty at a bench trial of DUI and sentenced him to six months of probation.

The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Superior Court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. The Court agreed with the trial court, essentially finding that the police officer conducted only a mere encounter with the defendant and that even if it was a Terry stop, the officer had reasonable suspicion based on the defendant’s behavior and statements. The defendant filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court agreed to accept the case.

What is a Petition for Allowance of Appeal?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court does not hear most cases. When a defendant is convicted and wishes to appeal, the defendant’s appeal is generally to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court is required to consider all timely-filed appeals and address issues which were not waived in the trial court. If the Superior Court denies the appeal, then the defendant may then file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Unlike Superior Court, the Supreme Court does not have to hear every case. Instead, the court chooses a limited number of cases in which it feels that there is an important or novel issue of law in question or where it believes the Superior Court has made a significant error. Thus, when a defendant loses in the Superior Court, the defendant may file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asking that court to review the ruling of the Superior Court. Most of these Petitions are denied, but in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to accept the appeal.

The Court’s Ruling

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that both the trial court and Superior Court erred in finding that the police officer did not “stop” the defendant for Fourth Amendment purposes and that the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop. First, the Court explained the standards for the three types of encounters between police officers and members of the public. The lowest level of interaction is a mere encounter. A mere encounter does not require a warrant or any level of suspicion, and police may simply walk up to any person and try to talk to them. The police may not do anything to restrict the person’s freedom of movement or require compliance during a mere encounter, but nothing stops an officer from trying to talk to someone.

The second level of interaction is an investigative detention or Terry stop. This type of encounter is something less than an arrest, but it allows police to investigate potential criminal activity. A Terry stop occurs when the police do something to indicate that the person would not be free to leave. For example, telling someone to stop, frisking them, or restricting their freedom of movement could result in a Terry stop. A Terry stop must be relatively brief or it could turn into a full blown arrest and require probable cause. During a Terry stop, police may sometimes take precautions to ensure their own safety such as frisking a suspect or requiring the suspect to remain in his or her vehicle. However, police may not engage in a Terry stop or take these safety precautions unless they have reasonable suspicion for the stop. The reasonable suspicion standard requires police to show that they have specific, articulable facts which would indicate to a reasonable officer that criminal activity is afoot.

The most restrictive level of interaction is a custodial detention. A custodial detention is the functional equivalent of an arrest and must be supported by probable cause. A custodial detention also constitutes a seizure. A police encounter is more likely to be considered a custodial detention if it is prolonged, takes place at the police station, involves handcuffs, or if the police tell the suspect that he or she is under arrest.

In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts made a mistake in finding that the interaction between the officer and the defendant was only a mere encounter. Instead, the Court concluded that the defendant would not have felt free to leave, and in fact could not leave, when the officer parked behind him, exited his car, shined his flash light into the defendant’s car, and physically closed the defendant’s door when the defendant attempted to get out of the car. Thus, in addition to not feeling free to leave, the defendant physically could not leave because the officer prevented him from doing so.

Because the Court concluded that the officer conducted an investigative detention by seizing the defendant and preventing him from exiting the car, the subsequent observations of the officer would be admissible as evidence at trial only if the officer had reasonable suspicion to conclude that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity prior to the officer’s decision to shut the defendant’s car door. The Court concluded that there was no reasonable suspicion because the officer had seen the defendant do nothing more than park in a public parking lot. While it was slightly unusual that the defendant chose to park in an empty lot behind two buildings at 3 am, it was not necessarily criminal. There was no evidence in the record that the parking lot was closed to members of the public at that time, and so the officer was not justified in believing that the defendant was going to commit a crime such as engage in a drug transaction or commit a burglary. Therefore, the Court ruled that the lower courts should have granted the motion to suppress.

This decision is particularly important because the Court stressed the fact that not every police action can be justified by merely reciting the magic words “officer safety.” If the officer had reasonable suspicion for the stop, then the officer might have been justified in physically closing the door and restricting the defendant to his car. But the officer safety issue only comes into play after it has been determined that police have reasonable suspicion. Concerns about officer safety do not transform an otherwise illegal stop into a legal one. Thus, whether police may frisk a defendant or take other steps out of concerns for officer safety is a two-part test. First, the police must actually have reasonable suspicion. Second, they must reasonably believe that some action like a frisk or closing the car door is necessary for safety reasons. If they cannot satisfy both parts of this test, then the subsequently-obtained evidence should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. This is a great opinion for privacy rights because it establishes that police cannot just stop and detain people on a whim or a mere hunch. They must be able to point to actual evidence of criminal activity, and simply reciting the phrase officer safety does not transform a constitutional violation into a legitimate stop.

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In just the past few months, we have won motions to suppress in cases involving drug possession, gun possession, and Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”). We have also successfully obtained full acquittals, dismissals, and other successful results in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Homicide. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.