OFFICER CANNOT BLOCK THE MOVEMENT OF VEHICLE WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO ARTICULATE A VALID JUSTIFICATION

The PA Superior Court recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Hampton, No. 3149 EDA 2017 (February 12, 2019), holding that the police, without emergency lights or siren activated, effectuated an investigatory detention upon pulling behind Hampton’s vehicle and that such detention was not supported by a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot nor was it excused from constitutional warrant requirements by the public servant exception of the community care-taking doctrine 

On the date in question, Officer Byrne observed a vehicle proceed past her vehicle and began to follow it. She saw the vehicle’s left turn signal activated and, the vehicle turned into a field on property belonging to a church. The driver, later identified as Hampton, stopped the vehicle in the grass in front of the church’s office building. Officer Byrne pulled behind the vehicle without activating the overhead lights or siren on her police cruiser. Officer Byrne then obtained additional information that led her to believe that Hampton was under the influence of alcohol. He was arrested, and a subsequent test revealed a BAC of .161%. 

Hampton filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence obtained by Officer Byrne based the illegality of the initial detention. Specifically, he argued that Byrne conducted an investigative detention without reasonable suspicion to believe that he was engaged in criminal activity at the time of the detention.  

The trial court determined (and the Commonwealth argued on appeal) that the initial interaction between Officer Byrne and Hampton was a “mere encounter” up until the point that the officer smelled alcohol. At that time, she then developed a reasonable suspicion of DUI, thereby warranting an investigative detention. 

Hampton, on the other hand, claimed that when Officer Byrne pulled in behind his vehicle, she blocked his egress in a manner that made it clear that he was not free to leave, thereby initiating an “investigatory detention” rather than a “mere encounter.” He also argued that Byrne’s failure to articulate having observed any vehicle code violations while she was following him meant that she had no probable cause or reasonable suspicion to support a vehicle stop. 

The Superior Court concluded that, under the circumstances, a reasonable person in Hampton’s shoes would not have felt free to leave. In fact, the Court concluded, Hampton could not leave after Officer Byrne pulled her marked police vehicle behind his vehicle. And, although Officer Byrne did not activate her emergency lights or siren, she nevertheless restrained Hampton’s freedom of movement “by means of physical force” when she blocked his exit. Accordingly, Hampton was seized, and an investigative detention commenced, when Officer Byrne blocked his vehicle. 

WAS THERE REASONABLE SUSPICION TO JUSTIFY DETENTION?

Having concluded that a seizure occurred, the Court next determined whether the Commonwealth demonstrated that there was reasonable suspicion to support it. Generally speaking, an investigatory detention is justified only if the detaining officer can point to specific and articulable facts which, in conjunction with rational inferences derived from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and therefore warrant the intrusion. The officer “must be able to articulate something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

Here, Officer Byrne conceded that she observed no vehicle code violations, and that Hampton was not speeding, stayed within the lanes of traffic, appropriately used his turn signal, and properly slowed for the turn into the church field. The officer “articulated no facts to support a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot prior to blocking Appellant’s vehicle.” The Superior Court thus concluded that Officer Byrne’s interaction with Hampton was, from its inception, an investigative detention unsupported by a reasonable, articulable belief that Hampton was engaged in criminal activity. 

WAS THE STOP JUSTIFIED BY THE COMMUNITY CARE-TAKING EXCEPTION?

The Superior Court thereafter addressed whether Officer Byrne’s actions were justified under the Community Care-taking exception, thereby permitted a warrantless seizure. 

The Court noted that Officer Byrne testified that she took obstructive action based on her belief that Hampton’s “car was disabled or maybe they were having some type of medical issue going on.” However, in order for the public servant (care-taking) exception to apply, Officer Byrne must have been able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance. 

Here, the Court was “unable to find any articulation of specific, objective facts” that would reasonably suggest that either Hampton or his female passenger were in need of assistance. The mere fact that Hampton pulled over is wholly insufficient. To support the application of the public servant/community care-taking exception. 

CONCLUSION

As a result of the above analysis, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court erred in denying Hampton’s Motion to Suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the unsupported investigatory detention. This evidence included the results of the field sobriety tests, preliminary breath test, and the chemical test of his breath which showed a blood alcohol concentration of .161 percent. 

Accordingly, the judgment of sentence was vacated; the Order denying suppression reversed; and, the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Superior Court’s opinion.

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/Opinion%20%20ReversedVacatedRemanded%20%2010387801650923086.pdf?cb=1

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http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/Opinion%20%20ReversedVacatedRemanded%20%2010387801650923086.pdf?cb=1

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