Pennsylvania Superior Court Dicta Weighs in on Passengers in Motor Vehicle Stops

Earlier this month, a panel of the Superior Court recognized reasonable limitations on a police officer’s ability to initiate “official investigations.”  The opinion correctly analyzes 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 4914, but dicta in the opinion raises questions about Pennsylvania’s recognition of passengers in motor vehicles Fourth Amendment rights.

In Commonwealth v. Barnes, the defendant was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over for multiple air fresheners obstructing the driver’s view.  During the traffic stop, the police officer asked the passenger-defendant for identification and he orally provided a name and date of birth.  When the police officer did a computer check with that information, the results indicated no record of that person.  The officer returned to the car and again requested identification.  The passenger-defendant provided the same name, but a different date of birth.  However, there still was no record.  The officer approached the car for a third time, informed the passenger-defendant that he was the subject of an “official investigation,” and again requested identification.  The passenger-defendant gave the same information as the second time the officer asked.  Without anything else, the officer arrested the passenger-defendant for false identification to law enforcement authorities in violation of 18 Pa. C.S.A.  § 4914.

The trial court dismissed the charges and, in a surprisingly lengthy opinion, the Superior Court affirmed this dismissal.  Section 4914 requires the individual be informed that he or she is the subject of official investigation of a violation of law prior to furnishing the false identification.  In Barnes, the Superior Court held that “the subject-of an-official-investigation-of-a-violation-of-law element cannot be met by being ‘under investigation’ for providing false identification during the questioning preceding the issuance of the warning.”

Barnes is important because it arguably holds that the “investigation” the officer originally conducted, regarding objects hanging from the rearview mirror, did not apply to the passenger.  This ruling contradicts federal caselaw that holds all occupants of a motor vehicle are subject to detention when a car is pulled over.  In Barnes, the Superior Court reasons “. . that under Fourth Amendment law, unless the stop was accompanied by reasonable suspicion that appellee was in violation of  the law or that criminal activity was afoot, the interaction between appellee and  [the officer] was a “mere encounter” and imposed no duty upon appellee to even interact with [the officer].”  However, the Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly held that passengers of motor vehicles stopped for investigation are “seized” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment and have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the stop.  Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255 (2007). See also Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979); Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996) (recognizing passenger standing without explicitly stating it).  The seizure involved in a traffic stop is more than a “mere encounter” but less than an arrest and therefore requires reasonable suspicion to stop.

The section of the Barnes opinion that addresses the Fourth Amendment is not necessary to the decision because the opinion clearly alternative bases for the ruling.  Additionally, the holding in Barnes is not inconsistent with the Brendlin because the language of § 4914 requires that the citizen in question be “the subject of an official investigation” and a passenger is not the “subject” of investigation where the investigation deals with motor vehicle code violations (i.e., a passenger does not receive a ticket for the driving ignoring a stop sign).  However, although this portion of the opinion may reasonably be considered dicta and non-binding, its inclusion raises questions about how Brendlin will be applied in Pennsylvania courts.  Barnes‘ holding is certainly pro-defendant, but the implications of its Fourth Amendment discussion erode rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Read Commonwealth v. Barnes here.

Read Brendlin v. California here.

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