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REASONABLE SUSPICION FOUND TO STOP VEHICLE LEAVING HOME WITH NEXUS TO DRUG ACTIVITY

The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Stilo, No. 2838 EDA 2014 (April 28, 2016), holding that even where the observations made by the surveillance officer of persons at a home with a nexus to drug dealing was equally consistent with innocent activity, the suppression court was not foreclosed from concluding that reasonable suspicion to stop the individual observed leaving the home after having visited for a brief period.

FACTS

Officer Cleaver testified police had received a narcotics complaint about a specific address in Philadelphia. Officer Cleaver determined the owner of the residence had been previously arrested by the narcotics unit. Officer Cleaver was sent to the scene immediately, and set up surveillance at 2:45 p.m., on November 13, 2013. Fifteen minutes later, at approximately 3:00 p.m., he saw Stilo pull up as a passenger in a white Ford Explorer, exit the vehicle, and walk into the basement of the property, which was a converted garage with a door. After three minutes, Stilo exited the property. As Stilo was walking out of the property, another male arrived in a red pickup truck and went into the property. Stilo returned to the passenger seat of the Ford Explorer and waited a few minutes. The second individual then came out of the property and returned to his pickup truck. Both vehicles left at the same time, and police stopped Stilo’s vehicle. Stilo was removed from the vehicle. Officer Cleaver spoke to him and Stilo gave the officer a clear Ziploc bag containing marijuana and he was arrested. Following his arrest, Stilo was searched and recovered from his person were: four white Ativan pills, seventeen round blue Oxycodone pills, and two round white Oxycodone pills.

Officer Cleaver testified that he had been a police officer for 16 years, had worked in the narcotics unit for six years, and had conducted several narcotics surveillances. He had seen this type of interaction where an individual goes into a house and comes out a short time later. He further stated that, with the two males walking in at the same time, he believed it was a drug transaction going on.

Stilo filed a Motion to suppress the evidence that was seized and sought to be used against him and, after a Suppression Hearing, his Motion was denied. This appeal followed.

ISSUE

Did police have reasonable suspicion that Stilo was engaged in criminal activity when they stopped his vehicle after having observed Stilo and the other subject at the home when the two subjects could have come to the location for any number of innocent reasons?

HOLDING

The Superior Court found no error in the suppression court’s conclusion that police had reasonable suspicion to stop Stilo’s vehicle.

REASONING

The Superior Court first set forth the applicable law regarding the three categories of interactions between citizens and police officers in this Commonwealth.

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 to respond. The second, an “investigative detention” must be supported by a reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and a period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of an arrest. Finally, an arrest or “custodial detention” must be supported by probable cause.

At issue in this case was an “investigative detention.” The Superior Court stated that the standard that must be applied in determining whether an investigative detention of an individual is as follows:

A police officer may detain an individual in order to conduct an investigation if that officer reasonablysuspects that the individual is engaging in criminal conduct. This standard, less stringent than probable cause, is commonly known as reasonable suspicion. In order to determine whether the police officer had reasonable suspicion, the totality of the circumstances must be considered. In making this determination, we must give due weight to the specific reasonable inferences the police officer is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience. Also, the totality of the circumstances test does not limit our inquiry to an examination of only those facts that clearly indicate criminal conduct. Rather, even a combination of innocent facts, when taken together, may warrant further investigation by the police officer.

The Superior Court then noted that in Stilo’s case, police had information of a prior nexus of the house to drugs. During surveillance, police witnessed the same suspicious activity of Stilo and another individual, separately entering and then leaving the subject residence after a very brief visit, within moments of each other. This activity was viewed through the eyes of a trained officer, Officer Cleaver, who believed it was a drug transaction.

In conclusion, the Superior Court stated that Stilo’s argument failed because a suppression court is required to take into account the totality of the circumstances — the whole picture. And, even in a case where one could say that the conduct of a person is equally consistent with innocent activity, the suppression court is not foreclosed from concluding that reasonable suspicion nevertheless existed.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A01021-16o.pdf?cb=2

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