On the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez v. United States to limit the duration of traffic stops, the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently held that where a valid traffic stop has been completed, to pass constitutional muster, the officer must demonstrate cause for suspicion independent of any basis on which he conducted the prior stop. In Commonwealth v. Ngyuen, 2015 Super. Pa. 98, the three-member panel unanimously held that evidence stemming from a traffic stop where the police re-initiated questioning of the defendant despite having completed the ticket writing process must be suppressed because there was no longer any justification for the stop. This is really a significant change in Pennsylvania law.
Pennsylvania categorizes police interactions with individuals into three categories: (1) mere encounters (2) investigatory detentions, and (3) custodial detentions. A mere encounter is any formal or informal interaction, and carries with it no official compulsion to stop or respond to the police inquiries. An investigative detention, comparatively, carries an official compulsion to stop and respond, but the detention is only temporary unless it results in probable cause for an arrest. A custodial detention is where an investigative detention becomes indistinguishable with a regular arrest. For the latter two categories, police must have “reasonable suspicion,” that is to say they need to be able to articulate specific observations and inferences that can lead a reasonable police officer to objectively conclude that criminal activity was afoot.
In this case, the defendant was a passenger in a car that was pulled over for speeding. A warning citation was written up, and the trooper stated explicitly that the individuals were free to go. However, the trooper really only said that they were free to leave to be able to obtain consent to search the car. He turned around and asked permission to ask a few more questions, and then for consent to search the car. For officer safety, the officer frisked the defendant and found plastic baggies of oxycontin. After making a formal arrest, the police officer searched the defendant more thoroughly, recovering over $1000 in cash, four jars of crack cocaine and four bags of regular cocaine. He was eventually charged and convicted with Possession With Intent to Deliver.
Admitting that the initial reason–the speeding citation–for the stop no longer justified the police actions, and that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would likely have felt that he was not free to go, the Commonwealth argued that the fact that the driver was “apologetic, nervous, and talkative” was reason to reengage the driver. Because, the Court recognized, such an allowance would give any police officer full reign to stop individuals on subjective “hunches,” it must be rejected.
Although the defendant had given permission for the police activity that eventually led to his arrest, the Court found that the illegal detention by the police officer tainted the stop. The situation would not easily convert into a “mere encounter” where reasonable suspicion would no longer be necessary just by asking permission.
It has long been accepted that police officers can issue a citation, tell the motorist that he is free to leave, and then re-engage and request consent. In fact, police in Pennsylvania have long been taught this technique. This case is groundbreaking in that it rejects that technique and provides added protection for individuals in traffic stops, especially after Rodriguez.
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