Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Lawyer

A Mere Encounter Leads To Probable Cause To Arrest

In Commonwealth v. Young, 2017 Pa. Super 142 (May 11, 2017) defendant was approached by three plainclothes police officers who noticed him standing for approximately an hour outside a building known to them for drug trafficking and violent crimes. The officers identified themselves to defendant as law enforcement and asked what he was doing. Defendant stated that he was waiting for a bus, but when subsequently asked if he had anything on his person that could harm the officers, he confessed that he had “two bags of weed.” Officers then reached into defendant’s pockets and found not only marijuana, but a handgun he was not legally permitted to carry.

After being charged with Carrying a Firearm Without a License, Possession of Marijuana, and Carrying a Firearm on Public Streets defendant filed a Motion to Suppress alleging that he was illegally detained and arrested. The trial court granted the Motion and Suppressed the drugs and gun finding that the police had no reasonable suspicion to detain defendant for an investigation and conduct a frisk.

On appeal, the Superior Court noted that there are “three levels of interaction between citizens and police officers: (1) mere encounter, (2) investigative detention, and (3) custodial detention.” citing Commonwealth v. Fuller, 940 A.2d 476, 478 (Pa. Super. 2007). The Superior Court further explained these type of interactions as follows:

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.

Commonwealth v. Jones, 874 A.2d 108, 116 (Pa. Super. 2005) (citation omitted).

Whether a mere encounter becomes an investigatory detention, which involves restrained by force or compulsion, is determined by examining the totality of the circumstances. In the instant case, even though three officers simultaneously approached the defendant and asked him if he was carrying anything dangerous, the Superior Court held that the interaction was initially a mere encounter which, just like mere encounters between citizens, does not need to be supported by any level of suspicion. Subsequently, when the defendant made his ill-advised admission to possessing drugs, the police had not only reasonable suspicion, but probable cause to arrest him for possession of a controlled substance. Accordingly, the seizure and search of defendant were supported by probable cause.