Our law firm, based in Philadelphia, frequently represents those charged with crimes involving the possession of illegal guns, firearms and narcotics in the City and its surrounding counties of Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware. In these situations, the defenses strongest argument is often a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence.
Warrantless Searches Are Illegal…but there are exceptions
As I have written in the past, on this blog and my criminal defense books, all searches done without a warrant are presumed unreasonable and illegal. All evidence obtained as the result of an illegal search is inadmissible but there are a number of exceptions to the search warrant rule in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is these exceptions which are often the basis for many motions to suppress.
A frequent scenario for many of our cases is a vehicle stop where police discover illegal drugs, narcotics, or a firearm during interaction with police. While police do not need probable cause or reasonable suspicion for any of these items if they are in plain view, they must establish at least reasonable suspicion to initiate a frisk of the items in the car and probable cause to search the compartments within it, including the trunk if they aren’t in plain view. Check out my article on plain view searches.
Protective Sweep Searches For the Protection of Police Officers
One of the major issues in justifications for a frisk of a suspect (pat down), or a protective sweep of an automobile (frisk), isnt the destruction of evidence but the protection of the police officer and others nearby. It’s important to keep in mind that to conduct a protective sweep of an automobile or to frisk the occupants, police must establish reasonable suspicion that the persons presents a danger to the officer. Courts in Pennsylvania have found that the following do not establish reasonable suspicion:
- Illegally tinted windows
- Delayed response in lowering windows or complying with commands
- Extreme nervousness
Pennsylvania and federal courts, however, are obviously concerned with police officer safety which is the reason why police do not need to establish probable cause but rather, reasonable suspicion for a frisk. Remember that reasonable suspicion is a lower form of probable cause. Even where police can establish reasonable suspicion, the protective sweep of these areas is limited to those places where a weapon or a gun could be hidden. Pennsylvania courts have held that the following do present enough for reasonable suspicion for a protective sweep:
- Defendant leans to his right or left or to the center of the car floor
- Defendant reached between his legs toward the floor when ordered to put his hands on the steering wheel
Balancing Test – Police Safety vs. Constitutional Right Against Illegal Search & Seizure
Reasonable suspicion requires specific articulable facts to provide a basis for this search. Courts have to weigh the constitutional protection of illegal search and seizure against officer safety. Courts will further analyze the reason for the movement within a vehicle. For instance, if the police officers ask the driver or passengers for identification and based on that command the occupants begin to move within the car, the court will be less likely to find that the frisk of the occupants or the car, was permissible.
While a court may look further at the delayed responses to commands, it understands that police vehicle stops often cause a person to act out of the ordinary due to nervousness based on previous contact with police or law enforcement. Courts will also look at the initial reason for the stop, which in many cases is a violation of the vehicle code (speed, running a stop sign, broken taillight), and how quickly the driver pulled to the side of the road following a police officer’s command or signal to do so.
For more information on vehicle stops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I encourage you to keep reading my blog and take some time to visit the free download section of my website.