What makes a suspicion reasonable?

Pennsylvania’s Superior Court has devoted a number of opinions to the difference between a “mere encounters” and “investigative detentions;” particularly in the context of car stops.  Courts have long recognized that a car stop is a seizure within the meaning of the constitution.  As discussed in a recent post on this blog, all occupants of a vehicle are detained pending an officer’s investigation into the motor vehicle code or criminal code violation the officer reasonable suspected was afoot.  However, what happens once a traffic ticket or warning is written?  Is the coercive nature of the interaction over?  Or are all the occupants of the vehicle free to leave?  Most importantly, is it ok for a police officer to keep you on the side of the road after they gave you a ticket?

In a recent case handled by our firm, both the trial court and the Superior Court held that an officer needs reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to detain a driver on the side of the road after a traffic stop.  In this case, a State Trooper further detained a driver, after investigating his unlawful tinting, because he believed the driver was engaged in drug-smuggling. The Trooper questioned the driver for a few minutes and then asked for consent to search the car.  The driver provided consent and the Trooper discovered cocaine during the ensuing search.

According to the Trooper, he suspected criminal activity becuase he observed the following:

1)  excessive window tint in violation of Pennsylvania’s regulations,

2)  three cellphones, two air fresheners, one Red Bull and one 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew;

3) the fact that the vehicle, although properly registered, was registered to a third-party from a suburb of Philadelphia;

4) the driver’s nervousness as evidence through a quivering voice and shaking hands;

5) the driver’s two prior drug-related arrests.

The trial court granted the driver’s motion to suppress held that there was no reasonable basis to infer drug-smuggling from the list of innocent information gathered by the Trooper.  Noone disputed that the Trooper personally had a subjective suspicion that the defendant was smuggling drugs and although Noone disputed that the suspicion was in fact correct (because drugs were recovered in the car), nonetheless, this evidence was suppressed because the suspicion simply wasn’t reasonable.  This decision prohibited the Commonwealth from introducing any of the drug evidence found during the search because the driver only gave permission to search during an unconstitutional detention.

The Commonwealth appealed that decision to the Superior Court.  After reading written briefs filed by both parties and hearing an oral argument in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Superior Court affirmed the suppression.
Read the opinion!

Commonwwealth v Simon

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