COURT UPHOLDS SUPPRESSION OF EVIDENCE: OFFICERS TESTIFIED TO FACTS THAT WERE INCONSISTENT WITH OR OMITTED FROM THE POLICE REPORT
The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Shabezz, No. 1639 EDA 2014 (December 21, 2015), holding that the trial court properly suppressed evidence when the police and Commonwealth failed to present sufficient credible evidence to justify the stop and detention of vehicles and their occupants in a high drug area.
Police testified that they were conducting a plainclothes detail in a high drug area where people often met at a McDonald’s lot and then proceeded to a nearby 7-11 lot to conduct drug transactions. They stated that on the date in question, Shabezz’s vehicle and another vehicle left the McDonald’s lot and drove to the nearby 7-11 lot. From a distance of approximately 45 feet, police then observed Shabezz exit his vehicle, walk to the other vehicle and engage in what they described was a hand-to-hand drug transaction. Shabezz then got back into his vehicle and both vehicles were thereafter blocked in by police as the vehicles started to leave the 7-11 lot. Shabezz fled from the passenger side of the vehicle he was occupying and was shortly apprehended with a baggie of marijuana and $1,800.00 in cash on his person. Police also recovered a bag containing packaged marijuana, packaging materials, a scale and, a stolen Smith & Wesson handgun from the glovebox of the vehicle from which he fled.
Shabezz was charged with a number of drug and firearm-related offenses and filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence that was recovered by the police. At the time of the Suppression Hearing, the trial court indicated that it “had a difficult time believing that the officer was able to make out such observations in the dark of night nearly 50 feet from where the defendants were located.” Additionally, the report prepared by officers shortly after the incident failed to describe a hand-to-hand transaction and was inconsistent with the testimony that was offered. In short, the court disbelieved much of the Commonwealth’s evidence because several officers testified to facts that were omitted from and/or inconsistent with the contemporaneous arrest report.
The trial court granted Shabezz’s Suppression Motion and effectively ended the prosecution against him. However, the Commonwealth appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that police were justified in stopping the vehicles and arresting Appellee even if they observed only a conversation between Shabezz and the other vehicle’s driver.
The Commonwealth claimed that the procession from McDonald’s to the 7-11 in accord with the common practice of drug transactions at that location, the brief conversation between Appellee and the Nissan driver, both cars moving to depart from the 7-11 parking lot with no vehicle occupant having entered the store, and Appellee’s immediate flight upon the appearance of the police all provided sufficient justification for the police action. Specifically, the Commonwealth argued that police had at least reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicles as they were leaving the 7-11 parking lot plus, probable cause to arrest Appellee in light of his flight from a lawful detention.
Whether the trial court properly suppressed the drugs, gun, and other evidence found in a car after police testified they observed conduct that resembled prior drug transactions within their experience and Shabezz fled when police stopped the car?
The Superior Court affirmed the decision of the trial court and held that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to support an investigative detention of the vehicles and their occupants based on the facts as found by the trial court.
First, you may ask how Shabezz can raise these claims when (1) he was not the driver of the vehicle and (2) he abandoned the property in the vehicle when he ran from the police upon their approach?
The Superior Court addressed these issues, citing the United States Supreme Court’s previous holding that a vehicle stop constitutes a seizure of all persons inside the vehicle. Thus, all occupants of the vehicle have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the stop. And, pursuant to Pennsylvania law, any possessions Shabezz abandoned in the vehicle he fled are subject to suppression if police lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him.
The Commonwealth argued that police were justified in their actions. They had at least reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicles as they were leaving the 7-11 parking lot and probable cause to arrest Shabezz in light of his flight from a lawful detention.
The Superior Court outlined the three levels of police interaction recognized by PA Courts. The first of these is a ‘mere encounter’ (or request for information) which need not be supported by any level of suspicion, but carries no official compulsion to stop or respond. The second, an ‘investigative detention’ must be supported by reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of arrest. Finally, an arrest or ‘custodial detention’ must be supported by probable cause
The Commonwealth argued that even if the Superior Court agreed that the trial court’s conclusion were supported by the record, the stop of the vehicles was nonetheless an investigative detention supported by reasonable suspicion.
The evidence deemed credible by the trial court was that two vehicles proceeded from a McDonald’s parking lot to a 7-11 parking lot where Appellee stepped out of one vehicle and conversed with the driver of the other. The trial court did not credit testimony indicating that that Shabezz did anything more than engage in conversation. Although an officer testified to making hundreds of arrests in the vicinity of the McDonald’s and 7-11, which had been a hot spot for three years, the trial court court apparently did not credit the officer’s testimony because the police report contained no mention of a pattern of narcotics activity at that location. Rather, the trial court court found as fact that police acted based on a conversation in a parking lot and nothing more.
Accordingly, the Commonwealth did not produce enough credible evidence to support a conclusion that police had reasonable suspicion to detain the vehicle in which Shabezz was a passenger.
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