The PA Superior Court has held that when police commanded that a man lower the window of a vehicle in which he was seated, while eating Taco Bell in an empty parking at 11:30 p.m., they raised the police-citizen interaction from a “mere encounter” to an “investigative detention,” unsupported by reasonable suspicion.

Powell was charged with two counts of DUI. Prior to trial, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during what he argued was an illegal investigative detention.

The trial court found that at the time of the police encounter with Powell, Powell’s truck “was the only vehicle in the parking lot. The police car had pulled up directly behind him. Most significantly, two uniformed law enforcement officers got out of their vehicle and approached his truck on both sides. Once there, Officer Winkler observed him eating. Regardless, Officer Winkler ordered Powell to roll down the window.” 

Under these circumstances, the trial court concluded that “a reasonable person would not have believed he was free to leave. Therefore, Officer Winkler, ‘by means of physical force or a show of authority,’ restrained Powell’s freedom of movement.” 

Accordingly, “the trial court concluded that Officer Winkler’s interaction with Powell became an investigative detention when the officer ordered Powell to roll down his window, and that the detention was not supported by reasonable suspicion.” 

The “Commonwealth contended that the court erred by concluding that Powell was subject to an investigative detention, rather than a mere encounter, and by suppressing evidence of Powell’s intoxication, which led to his being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).”

However, the Superior Court was unpersuaded by the Commonwealth’s argument. The appellate court noted that “while Powell sat alone in his vehicle, parked legally and eating food from a nearby restaurant, Officer Winkler parked his vehicle ‘right behind’ Powell’s car. He and the sheriff’s deputy both approached Powell’s vehicle and positioned themselves on either side of it. Although Officer Winkler could see that Powell was innocuously eating food, he knocked on Powell’s window. When Powell looked at him, Officer Winkler ordered Powell to lower his window.” 

“In light of the totality of these circumstances, Powell was subjected to an investigative detention at the point of [being commanded to lower his window.]” 

Suppression affirmed. 

Commonwealth v. Powell, 398 WDA 2019 (Pa. Superior. February 3, 2020)

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