The Pennsylvania Superior Court in Commonwealth v. Moyer, 2008 Pa. Super. 173 (2008), holds a consent to search person and car vitiated as involuntary due to coercive circumstances.

The relevant facts of the case are as follows: Two state troopers noticed the defendant’s car with one tail light with a hole in the cover, exposing white light to the rear. They then pulled the defendant over. One trooper observed movement between the driver and passenger, focused down towards the floor boards and toward the passenger side of the car.

A trooper approached the vehicle and told the defendant why he was stopped, and requested a driver’s license and registration card. The trooper inquired about the defendant’s destination, and testified that he appeared nervous and had bloodshot eyes. He also found that the defendant was fingerprinted once before for an arrest (not a conviction) for marijuana possession.

The trooper gave the defendant a warning for the broken taillight, returned to the car, ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and directed him to the rear of the car to show him the broken taillight and told him to get it fixed. The other trooper was standing behind them a the rear of the car. A trooper told the defendant that he was free to leave, but they then called his name out as he was about to get back into his car and asked him if he minded if the officer asked him a few questions. They did not inform him that he did not have to answer.

The defendant agreed to respond, and the officer said he was aware of the prior arrest and that he observed movement in the car. He then interrogated the defendant about whether there were any drugs or paraphernalia in the car, to which he stated there was not. The officer continued to interrogate him, and asked if he could search the vehicle. The defendant was not told that he could refuse the request for consent to search the car. He then ostensibly consented to the search.

The troopers searched the vehicle and the defendant, and found a crack pipe on his person and in the car. He then admitted to recently smoking crack cocaine. He was arrested, blood tested, and wasn’t given Miranda warnings until he was at the booking center. He was charged with DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The defendant then moved for suppression all evidence seized as a result of the stop, and the trial court granted suppression. The Commonwealth appealed.

What happened on appeal? Affirming the trial court, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania found that although the defendant was lawfully stopped for the traffic stop, his consent to search his person and car was vitiated by the coercive environment at the time he gave consent. The court found that his consent was not given voluntarily because he reasonably believed that he was not free to re-enter his car and drive away and that he was not free to decline the officer’s request for more information and to conduct the search.

The court looked to the following circumstances in determining that his consent was not valid: 1. He was repeatedly interrogated about his origination and destination, 2) the police directed him to exit and walk to the rear of the vehicle regarding the taillight, 3) the suspicious nature of the police officer’s questioning, 4) and that the police created an intimidating atmosphere for a broken taillight stop, and the reintroduction of questioning within seconds after telling him he could leave, 5) there were two armed officers standing near him while he was at the rear of the car alone, 6) the overhead lights and spotlight were directed at the defendant, 7) the officers told him they know of past alleged drug activity, and 8) he was not informed that he didn’t have to answer questions or allow the police to search his car.

For a full discussion of the court’s legal reasoning, click here to view the opinion.