PA Supreme Court May Create Bright Line Rule For Investigative Detentions

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ March 30, 2014

Having recently heard oral arguments, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Lyles may create a bright line rule for determining when exactly an investigative detention begins. In Lyles, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the crack cocaine and marijuana found on his person after an allegedly unconstitutional investigative detention. Lyles and another person were sitting outside an abandoned building in South Philadelphia where several robberies had recently occurred when two police officers approached the men and asked why they were sitting there. The officers did not believe Lyles’ explanation that his grandmother lived on the block and requested his identification and started writing down his information. Lyles on three occasions reached into his right pocket, which the officer believed may have been an effort to reach for a weapon. Because of these furtive movements, the officers frisked Lyles and found that he was in possession of illegal drugs.

The suppression court found that the “mere encounter” turned into an “investigative detention” when the officer requested Lyles’ identification because any person in Lyles’ situation would not feel free to leave, and even the officer believed that Lyles was not free to leave he was writing down his information. The suppression court also found that the investigative detention was not supported by reasonable suspicion and was therefore unconstitutional. The Superior Court reversed and found that asking for identification and writing down information was not an investigative detention, in a direct application of Commonwealth v. Au, 42 A.3d 1002 (Pa. 2012) (holding that merely asking for a driver’s identification, when the driver was sitting in his car around midnight, was not an investigative detention).

The Supreme Court in Lyles may end up creating a bright line rule as to when exactly an investigative detention takes place. Lyles argues that a bright-line rule for investigative detentions is not appropriate, as each case is context-specific. He argues that the detention took place when the officers showed authority, which was when they asked for identification and began writing down information, as a reasonable person would not feel free to leave at that point. Lyles argues that because an investigative detention took place in the absence of reasonable suspicion, all evidence seized during the stop is “fruit of the poisonous tree” and accordingly must be suppressed. The Commonwealth, however, argues that no investigative detention occurred until Lyles began making furtive movements, and therefore the entire encounter was constitutional.

The Supreme Court will decide exactly when an investigative detention occurred and may create a bright line rule for future cases. The decision will be made later this year and we will provide an update when that opinion is written.

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