The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Young, No. 573 EDA 2016 (May 11, 2017), holding that Young’s arrest was supported by probable cause after he admitted, during a mere encounter with police, that he was in possession of two bags of marijuana.

Three plain clothes officers in an unmarked car were patrolling an area known for narcotics sales and violence when one of the officers, Nieves, observed Young standing in front of a store in the rain. After they drove by a few times, Nieves noticed Young was still standing in the rain. After approximately an hour, Nieves and his two partners stopped at the location, got out of their unmarked patrol car, and identified themselves as police officers to Young because they were not wearing their uniforms.

When Nieves approached Young, he asked Young what he was doing. Young replied that he was waiting for a bus. (Nieves had observed buses come and leave at this location during the time he had Young under observation.) Nieves then asked Young if he had anything on his person that could harm Nieves or his partners. Young responded by saying, “No…. All I have is two bags of weed” and he began to reach toward his right coat pocket.

Nieves told Young not to reach towards his pocket as he proceeded to reach into Young’s pocket himself. When Nieves reached into Young’s right coat pocket to retrieve the marijuana, he recovered a black Ruger .380 handgun, loaded with six live rounds in the magazine and one round in the chamber. Nieves’ partner, Officer Mertha, then reach into Young’s pants pocket and recovered marijuana.

Young was arrested and charged with Carrying a Firearm Without a License, Possession of Marijuana, and Carrying a Firearm on Public Streets in Philadelphia. He subsequently filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that he had been subject to an illegal detention and arrest. After a hearing, the trial court granted Young’s Motion to Suppress. The Commonwealth filed a timely Notice of Appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in its conclusions of law because the officers acted lawfully, having probable cause to arrest Young for possession of a controlled substance or, at a minimum, having reasonable suspicion to detain him for investigation and to conduct a frisk.

The Superior Court began its analysis by defining the interactions that occur between citizens and police:(1) the mere encounter, (2) the investigative detention, and (3) the custodial detention. A mere encounter can be any formal or informal interaction between an officer and a citizen, but will normally be an inquiry by the officer of a citizen. The hallmark of this interaction is that it carries no official compulsion to stop or respond. In contrast, an investigative detention, by implication, carries an official compulsion to stop and respond, but the detention is temporary, unless it results in the formation of probable cause for arrest, and does not possess the coercive conditions consistent with a formal arrest. Since this interaction has elements of official compulsion it requires reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity. In further contrast, a custodial detention occurs when the nature, duration and conditions of an investigative detention become so coercive as to be, practically speaking, the functional equivalent of an arrest.

In Young’s case, the trial court found that the interaction between officers and Young rose to the level of an investigative detention before they searched his pockets because the three officers made a show of authority by standing in front of Young and, during questioning, commanded him to stop reaching for his pocket, and then searched his pockets. However, the Superior Court noted that the trial court’s analysis ignored Young’s intervening act: He voluntarily told officers that he had marijuana on his person before they ever commanded him to stop reaching for his pocket or before they searched his pockets. Therefore, contrary to the trial court’s conclusion that Young’s seizure and search was unlawful, the Superior Court concluded that as soon as Young volunteered that he was in possession of marijuana, police had probable cause to arrest him for possession of a controlled substance. What’s more, they were also authorized to search him incident to that arrest or immediately prior to placing him under arrest.

The only question that remained for the Superior Court was whether the interaction that occurred before Young told the officers he was in possession of marijuana constituted a mere encounter (making it lawful) or, whether it rose to the level of an investigative detention (making it unlawful).

As noted earlier, a mere encounter between a police officer and a citizen does not need to be supported by any level of suspicion on the part of the police and, it carries no official compulsion on the part of the citizen to stop or to respond. The Superior Court further noted that there is no constitutional provision that prohibits police officers from approaching a citizen in public to make inquiries of them. And, what begins as a mere encounter may escalate into an investigatory detention or seizure if police action becomes too intrusive. If the interaction escalates into an investigative detention but is not supported by reasonable suspicion, it is an unlawful detention; however, if the detention is supported by a reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity on the part of the citizen, the investigative detention is a lawful detention.

The Superior Court then applied the facts as found by the trial court in Young’s case to the above mere encounter analysis. Specifically, the Superior Court noted that Nieves and his two partners exited an unmarked patrol car and approached Young on a public sidewalk. The three officers were not in uniform but, they identified themselves to Young as police officers. The three officers did not surround Young; rather, they all three stood in front of him. They then asked him two questions: (1) “what was he doing?” and (2) “did he have anything on his person that could harm the officers?” At that point, Young said no, but he added that he was in possession of “two bags of weed.” The Superior Court found that this conduct did not place a restraint of liberty, physical force, show of authority, or some level of coercion upon Young nor did it convey a demand for his compliance or that there would be tangible consequences if he refused to answer their questions.

Accordingly, the trial court erred as a matter of law when it concluded that police officers lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory detention of Appellee because: (i) Appellee and three officers were engaged in a mere encounter when Appellee volunteered that he had marijuana on his person and began reaching for his pocket; and (ii) as soon as Appellee admitted to being in possession of marijuana, officers had probable cause to arrest Appellee and to search him incident to that arrest.

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-S15023-17o%20-%2010309683717329184.pdf?cb=1

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