Reasonable Suspicion –DUI Traffic Stop –License Suspended Only

Commonwealth v. Farnan, 2012 PA Super 221 (Pa. Super. Ct. October 11, 2012) is the perfect new case to discuss what Superior court concludes is reasonable suspicion as the basis to perform of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania motor vehicle traffic stop. Right now, in Pennsylvania, a police officer has authority to stop a vehicle when he or she has reasonable suspicion that a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code is occurring or has occurred. This authority is pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6308.

The PA Supreme Court defines reasonable suspicion as “a less stringent standard than probable cause necessary to effectuate a warrantless arrest, and depends on the information possessed by police and its degree of reliability in the totality of the circumstances.”
In order to justify the seizure, a police officer must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts” leading him to suspect criminal activity is afoot. In assessing the totality of the circumstances, courts must also afford due weight to the specific, reasonable inferences drawn from the facts in light of the officer’s experience and acknowledge that innocent facts, when considered collectively, may permit the investigative detention. Commonwealth v. Holmes, 609 Pa. 1, 14 A.3d 89, 95-96 (Pa. 2011).

The Farnan case involved a factual scenario that is all too familiar to many rural police departments. Mr. Farnan was the operator of a motor vehicle near his home after the police were called to address a domestic disturbance. Upon arrival there was no criminal activity. However, the police officers knew Mr. Farnan and were aware that for at least thirty days Farnan did not possess a valid driver’s license due to a DUI conviction. Mr. Farnan drove past the home where his ex-wife and police officers were standing discussing the domestic matter. One officer, without checking the PA DOT driver’s license history, got into his patrol car and pursued Mr. Farnan for driving while on a DUI related license suspension in violation of 75 Pa CSA § 1543(b). This was the only motor vehicle infraction observed; no swerving, speeding, or any type of erratic driving was claimed to be an independent basis for the traffic stop.

Mr. Farnan was arrested and charged with violating 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3802(a), (c) and § 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1543(b). He faced 180 days in jail. He complained that without actually checking his PennDOT license status there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and, therefore, no basis to pull him over and, therefore, no basis for the officer to conduct a DUI investigation.

Stated more specifically, “the officer’s prior knowledge regarding Farnan’s license suspended status was approximately 30 days old when the vehicle detention occurred and, therefore, constituted stale information from which it could not reasonably be inferred that he had been driving with a suspended license at the time he was detained.”

The court, relying on §6308(b) and case law discussing the exact same facts except for the length of time of knowledge of a suspension, found that: 1) the officer had reasonable suspicion that a violation of the motor vehicle code was occurring; 2) the law permitted him to stop Farnan for the purpose of a) checking the vehicle’s registration, b) proof of financial responsibility, c) vehicle identification number or engine number or the driver’s license, or d) to secure such other information as the officer may reasonably believe to be necessary to enforce the provisions of this title.75 Pa.C.S. § 6308(b).

No specific case dealing with the thirty day time period was found. In Commonwealth v. Stevenson, 2003 PA Super 347, 832 A.2d 1123 (Pa. Super. 2003), Superior Court held that the passage of three years invalidated an officer’s reliance on license suspension information to justify a vehicle detention. At the other end of the spectrum, in Commonwealth v. Hillar, 2008 PA Super 22, 943 A.2d 984 (Pa. Super. 2008), appeal denied, 598 Pa. 763, 956 A.2d 432 (Pa. 2008), Superior Court has stated an officer’s acquisition of license suspension information immediately prior to a traffic stop did, in fact, establish reasonable suspicion.

Although no Pennsylvania court case has considered the freshness, reliability, and validity of license suspension information the court specifically stated that “the 30-day period between [the police officer’s] acquisition of information regarding Farnan’s license status and the challenged investigative vehicle detention was not so lengthy as to deplete the officer’s knowledge of its probative value concerning the likelihood that Farnan was in violation of the Motor Vehicle Code at the time of the stop.”

Significantly, the court stated that this minor modicum of facts permitted the investigatory detention to determine the license status of Farnan, if nothing else. When his license was determined to be suspended and/or his appeared to violate another provision of the Motor Vehicle code, § 3802, such independent criminal investigation was permitted. The police “did not need to be absolutely certain that Appellant was driving under a suspended license in order to commence his investigation.”

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