Understanding the “High Crime Area” Factor in the Probable Cause Analysis

Our firm handles a number of cases involving the possession, sale, or distribution of illegal narcotics. A client’s Constitutional right protected by Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution narcotics and the 4th and 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution frequently enter into our preparation and strategy in these matters.

It is important to understand that our state and federal Constitutions protect a person’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Over time Courts have issued numerous opinions in an attempt to clarify the meaning of the statutory language in an effort to protect ones individual rights while balancing the needs to protect the public. The defense invokes these Constitutional rights through a pretrial suppression motion. During such a motion the critical issue is whether law enforcement can articulate a reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a stop or an arrest. Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances at the time of the incident are sufficient to form a belief that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.

During a suppression hearing the prosecution must establish that probable cause existed using a totality of these circumstances analysis. See Commonwealth v. Clark, 558 Pa. 157(1999) relying on Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213(1983). During a totality analysis a Court considers the time, number of transactions, the place where the transactions occurred, the movement and mannerisms of the parties involved and any other factors the law enforcement might have used prior to the stop and arrest.

The Courts utilize a totality analysis because it provides a proper balancing test and minimizes the possibility that law enforcement will stop and arrest an individual based on a hunch or some prior experience unrelated to the current case. In Pennsylvania, prior to our Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Thompson, a single transaction, even in a area classified as “a high crime area” did not provide law enforcement with probable cause to arrest an individual on the suspicion of a sale or possession of illegal narcotics. See Commonwealth v. Thompson 604 Pa. 198 (2009).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court even expanded on this theory in Commonwealth v. Banks where it stated that a single transaction, followed by the flight of a suspect did not necessarily meet the probable cause single standard. See Commonwealth v. Banks, 540 Pa. 453 (1995). Pennsylvania maintained this single transaction rule even in those cases where law enforcement testified that the transaction appeared similar to previous unrelated transactions based on the officer’s experience and training. The single transaction rule was often used as a basis for many Motions to Suppress Evidence in narcotics cases.

Our Supreme Court in the Thompson case, however, effectively reversed its previous decisions regarding the single transaction rule and allowed the prosecution to establish probable cause where a testifying officer could demonstrate a nexus between his experience and the search, arrest, or seizure of evidence. Defense counsel and dissenting Judges have argued that the Thompson decision subjects individuals to unreasonable search and seizures especially in poorer economic areas. The Thompson decision allows the Court to use one’s socioeconomic status and mere presence in a high crime area as part of the totality of a circumstances analysis. Our firm continues to argue this socioeconomic prejudice to trial and appellate court but the Thompson case presents an obstacle.

Until Thompson is overturned defense counsel must be prepared to argue beyond the one transaction rule to effectively suppress evidence. A criminal defendant can no longer rely on a single transaction theory especially if he or she finds himself present in what law enforcement characterize as a high crime area. If you or a family member is charged with the sale or possession of illegal narcotics it is important for you to speak with your defense attorney regarding these issues. A pretrial motion is often a defendant’s best defense in these matters and failure to effectively argue a motion could subject you to serious criminal consequences.