Criminal Lawyer Update: Mere Encounters of the Close Kind

by | Jun 18, 2008

In a brand new opinion authored by Judge Stevens, the Pennsylvania Superior Court holds that the interaction between citizens and a police officer is a mere encounter, where the citizens are parked on the side of a road and the officer parks a patrol vehicle about 20 feet away and shines the headlights into the vehicle and approaches the vehicle with a flashlight to “stop and see if they’re all right”, in Commonwealth v. Collins, 2008 Pa. Super. 124 (Pa. Super. 2008). In this fact-intensive opinion, the court finds that this type of interaction with the police is a mere encounter, which does not rise to the level of an investigative detention, and therefore there was no seizure of the person to invoke any constitutional concerns.

Unsurprisingly, the court finds that “a reasonable person in Appelle’s position would be free to terminate the encounter” where the lights were shining on the vehicle in which the defendant was sitting, and the officer approached the car with a flashlight. Brilliantly, as the officer approached the car, the defendant rolled down the window, and in response to the officer’s inquiry of whether everything was OK, he blurted out that they had been smoking marijuana. The officer then had reasonable suspicion to detain them for a brief investigation.

Judge Donohue filed a dissenting opinion, agreeing with the trial court that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to terminate the encounter with the police officer, and simply ignore the trooper, back out of the parking space and leave.

Had the court found that this encounter was an investigative detention, the evidence would have been suppressed because the officer testified that there was no suspicious activity when he approached the vehicle. Therefore, the investigative detention would not have been supported by reasonable suspicion, which is necessary under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The officer filed a criminal complaint in this case charging the defendant with one count of possession of drug paraphernalia, which was what they found in the car.

I wouldn’t have felt free to leave in this situation. How about you?

To view this opinion, click here.

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