‘Reasonable Suspicion’ and Vehicle Searches: When Should Officers Fear for Their Safety?
A recent decision by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania sheds light on when police can search a vehicle for weapons during a traffic stop on the grounds that they fear for their safety.
In Commonwealth v. Arrington, police officers on patrol observed a vehicle traveling toward them in their lane of travel. The vehicle remained in the incorrect lane of travel for several seconds before returning to the correct side of the road. The officers suspected that the driver was driving under the influence and conducted a traffic stop.
During the stop, the driver produced his driver’s license, and there were no weapons in plain view. However, the officers witnessed the driver exhibit several signs of intoxication and asked him to step out of the vehicle. When the driver failed to immediately respond, the officers removed him from the vehicle, conducted a pat down search, and placed him in handcuffs. While one officer supervised the driver, the other ran a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) search which revealed that the driver had a revoked concealed-carry permit. The officers asked the driver if he was in possession of any weapons, which the driver denied. However, one of the officers searched the vehicle’s passenger compartment and discovered a handgun in a closed shoe box that was sitting on the vehicle’s backseat. The officer ended the search and ran the handgun’s serial number through the NCIC, which indicated that the weapon was stolen.
The officers placed the driver under arrest and conducted a second search of the driver and his vehicle. The search yielded U.S. currency and a stamp bag of heroin in the driver’s pockets and 81 bags of heroin, U.S. currency and a digital scale in the vehicle’s center console, and four cell phones on the driver and passenger seats.
The driver was charged with firearms and drug trafficking crimes and sought to suppress the evidence, arguing that the initial search of his vehicle was unconstitutional. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, and the driver was convicted and sentenced to 15 months of probation.
The driver appealed to the Superior Court.
On appeal, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the driver, finding that based upon the totality of the circumstances, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that their safety was threatened, which is required by law for a warrantless search. The court reasoned:
Here, [the driver] was in handcuffs, positioned at the rear of his vehicle, out of reach of the passenger compartment, and being supervised by [an officer], with [another officer] nearby. Therefore, [the driver] posed no threat to the officers’ safety.
The court additionally noted that:
Although the stop occurred late at night and in a high-crime area, [the driver] was able to produce his driver’s license and the car’s rental agreement; the officers did not observe any weapons in plain view; [the driver] did not display extreme nervousness; and [the driver] made no furtive movements. Indeed, the sole factors in support of reasonable suspicion were that the stop occurred at night, and in a high-crime neighborhood.
The good news for the driver is that with the evidence seized from his car suppressed, he is entitled to a new trial. As always, if you have been arrested, it is important to consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney immediately to ensure that your legal rights are protected and that all possible defenses are explored.