When it comes to police stops, frisks, searches, and arrests, we’ve all heard two terms that are frequently used: “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” These are two alternate burdens of proof that the State must meet in certain situations to ensure that the police action was legal. Stops and frisks must be accompanied by a “reasonable suspicion” that the person engaged in crime and is dangerous, and there must be “probable cause” to search or arrest someone. If the police did not have the applicable burden of proof, evidence and contraband found during a search can be suppressed by the defense. The big question is, what exactly is reasonable suspicion? What exactly is probable cause? Throughout history, countless court cases have slowly defined what exactly reasonable suspicion and probable cause are, and more importantly, what they are not. Commonwealth v. Cartagena, decided January 23rd, provides another example of what reasonable suspicion is not.
Jamie Cartagena was pulled over at around 2 a.m. in Philadelphia for having tinted windows. Police performed a protective sweep of his vehicle, insisting that they had a reasonable suspicion that Cartagena was armed and dangerous. During this sweep, police found a gun in the center console. Cartagena’s defense filed a motion to suppress the sweep and the weapon collected from it, as there was no reasonable suspicion that he was dangerous, and thus, no legal grounds to commence a protective sweep. The trial court agreed and suppressed the gun (that means it can’t be introduced as evidence at trial – which results in a win for the defendant).
The Commonwealth quickly appealed the suppression ruling. The prosecution alleges that Cartagena did not initially lower his windows when ordered and was very nervous, particularly when opening and shutting the center console in the car. Coupled with the time of the stop and tinted windows, the Commonwealth argued that reasonable suspicion existed and that the search was legal. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, however, did not agree with this logic. The Court en banc ruled that the officers had no “specific and articulable grounds” that would allow a search of the center console. The Court found that the officers had no reason to believe that Cartagena was armed, and that the only legitimate factors in assessing if there was reasonable suspicion were the time of night, the tinted windows, and the nervousness of the driver. However, the Court ruled that none of these factors, nor the combination thereof, give rise to reasonable suspicion that the driver is armed. Because of this ruling, the definition of “reasonable suspicion” just got a little bit clearer: driving at night with tinted windows and being nervous does not create a reasonable suspicion that the driver is armed or dangerous.