PA Superior Court Decides Automatic Gunshot Detector May Contribute to Finding of Reasonable Suspicion

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court just announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Raglin, holding that “Shot Spotter” gunshot detection technology coupled with additional factors may provide sufficient reasonable suspicion for police to make a Terry stop. The Superior Court made its decision without any evidence as to whether this Shot Spotter system is reliable or not, including whether a gun was even fired on the day in question. This decision could have significant consequences for individuals who live in urban locations where city officials are more likely to employ this unproven technology.

Commonwealth v. Raglin

On February 27, 2015, a police officer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was working at his desk when he received a notification from Shot Spotter that a gunshot occurred in “zone 5.” Shot Spotter is a system of censors that is supposedly sensitive enough to distinguish between gun shots and fireworks. Additionally, the police claim Shot Spotter is accurate enough to pinpoint the location of the shot within 25 yards, although the Commonwealth did not present any conclusive evidence to this effect at the motions hearing in this case.

After receiving the gunshot detection notification, the operator dispatched multiple police officers to the location. Pittsburgh Police Sergeant Baker was one of the first officers on scene. When he arrived, he observed two black males in the street who were close to the location of the shot. One of these males was the defendant. When these two individuals saw the officer, they both separated and left the area in separate automobiles. Sergeant Baker followed both vehicles for a period of time, but eventually lost track of the vehicle not operated by the defendant. The vehicle operated by the defendant was observed making several turns and eventually pulled over on Thomas Boulevard.

The Superior Court then offers conflicting accounts of what happened next, but supposedly just as Sergeant Baker activated his lights, the defendant got out of his car. Immediately after this, the defendant began to walk towards Sergeant Baker. Sergeant Baker ordered the defendant to place his hands on the trunk where he conducted a pat-down search.  Another officer arrived shortly thereafter and noticed a handgun on the center console of the defendant’s vehicle in plain view. Narcotics were also recovered, although it is unclear from where they were recovered. The defendant then admitted that he had an active arrest warrant and a gun and “was trying to get away.” At this point, the defendant was officially placed under arrest.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with various offenses including: Possession with the Intent to Deliver, Knowing and Intentional Possession of a Controlled Substance, Receiving Stolen Property, and various Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (including persons not to possess a firearm and carrying a firearm without a license), and driving with a suspended license. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun and drugs, arguing that the police lacked the reasonable suspicion or probable cause necessary to stop his vehicle and detain him.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and subsequently found him guilty of all charges in a waiver trial. The court sentenced the defendant to 4-8 years incarceration, followed by a one year of probation. He appealed to the Superior Court, again arguing that police simply did not have the reasonable suspicion necessary for the stop.

What Is the Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?

As discussed above, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence in his case. Typically, a motion to suppress is a motion that asks a court to exclude evidence against a defendant because it was obtained when police did something illegal such as making a stop without “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion.” Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are similar, but distinct legal concepts. Probable cause is mentioned in both the United States Constitution (the Fourth Amendment) and the Pennsylvania Constitution (Article I, Section 8). In order for the government to arrest you, there must be probable cause that you committed a crime. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined probable cause as “the facts and circumstances which are within the knowledge of the officer at the time of the arrest, and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.”

Reasonable suspicion is a different and lesser standard. Unlike probable cause, reasonable suspicion is not mentioned in either the U.S. or Pennsylvania constitutions. Despite its absence, courts have allowed police officers and other government officials to stop people on reasonable suspicion after the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio. Reasonable suspicion is not as rigorous of a standard as probable cause. A person cannot be arrested or have their home searched based on reasonable suspicion. However, police may detain an individual for an investigatory detention based on reasonable suspicion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court defines reasonable suspicion as “a less stringent standard than probable cause and depends on the information possessed by the police and its degree of reliability in the totality of the circumstances.” A police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts leading him to suspect that criminality is afoot. The issue in the defendant’s case is whether the police had reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place.

Does a Shot Spotter Provide Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause? 

The defendant’s case is unique in that he did not become a person of interest until the police received a shot-spotter notification that a gun had been fired. When the police first saw the defendant, he was not committing any crimes or visibly carrying a gun. They merely saw him outside and, allegedly, within 25 yards of where a shot had occurred. Pennsylvania law is very clear that being in a high-crime area, does not qualify as reasonable suspicion to stop someone.  This obviously makes sense because if this were the law, the police could stop anyone simply because they lived in a bad neighborhood. However, if someone runs from the police in a high crime area, that is often sufficiently suspicious for the police to stop that person.

In the defendant’s case, he was in a high crime area, but he did not run. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that walking away from the police after seeing them in a high crime area is not sufficient for the police to stop a person on the basis of reasonable suspicion. In the defendant’s case, he did leave the area after he saw Sergeant Baker. However, once Sergeant Baker initiated a stop, the defendant complied and proceeded to walk towards Sergeant Baker. The defendant also followed his order by placing his hands on his trunk.

What is most significant about the Superior Court’s opinion is what was not in the record. Specifically, there was nothing in the Superior Court’s decision about how reliable this Shot-Spotter technology is. In fact, the Superior Court wrote in its opinion that it was “not prudent” to consider the reliability of this program. Further, there was nothing on record that the police recovered a bullet casing, despite the Shot-Spotter stating that a gun had just been discharged. The Commonwealth did not introduce any evidence as to whether police even looked for a shell casing or tested the defendant for gunshot residue.    

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds That the Officer Had Reasonable Suspicion

Despite the above-stated omissions, the Superior Court held that Sergeant Baker had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant. The Superior Court provided four reasons why Sergeant Baker had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant. First, the Shot Spotter itself provides some level of suspicion even though there was nothing in the record to indicate how accurate the technology is; second, the defendant was close to the area where a shot occurred; third, the defendant’s strange act of jumping out of his vehicle just as Sergeant Baker activated his lights; and finally because this all occurred in a high crime area.

Ultimately, it appears that the Superior Court put a heavy emphasis on the Shot-Spotter technology. In one of their footnotes, they described Shot Spotter as providing “strong evidence that a crime has likely occurred,” yet they stated that they did not find it “prudent” to know how accurate this technology is. It will be interesting to see if the defendant appeals this decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Currently, “Shot-Spotter” is in use in Philadelphia, but that could change, and it is in heavy use in Camden, NJ.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

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