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September 26, 1997


Appeal from the Order dated January 2, 1997 in the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County, Criminal Division, at Docket No. 96 CR 873. Before Callan, J.

Before: Del Sole, Hudock And Montemuro, JJ. Opinion BY Del Sole, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Del Sole


Filed September 26, 1997

The Commonwealth appeals from an order granting Appellee, Larry Darnel Francis', motion to suppress three allegedly stolen credit cards. The issue is whether the trial court correctly concluded that Appellee's consent to search his car was obtained during an unlawful detention. *fn1 We reverse.

On June 10, 1996, Appellee was stopped by Trooper Thomas Laskey because the vehicle he was driving had an expired temporary registration plate which was registered to another car. When asked for identification, Appellee gave Trooper Laskey an expired registration card and stated that his identification was in the trunk. Trooper Laskey called for back-up and when it arrived, Appellee retrieved his wallet from the trunk and leafed through his cards, letting three of them drop back into the trunk. Trooper Laskey testified that he did not see what type of cards these were, but noted that they appeared to be plastic. Appellee then closed the trunk of the car and spread out different forms of identification, none of which was a driver's license. The names listed on the cards varied slightly (Larry D. Francis, Darnel Francis), had different addresses, and different social security numbers. Appellee was also unable to produce any insurance information.

Trooper Laskey then ran a check and determined that the car was not stolen. *fn2 He also learned that Appellee had two driving records, one under Larry Francis, and the other under Darnel Francis, and that his driver's license was suspended. In addition, according to the different social security numbers listed on the i.d. cards, the trooper discovered there were no warrants or pending criminal charges filed against Appellee. Nevertheless, Trooper Laskey testified that after witnessing Appellee drop the three cards into his trunk and hearing Appellee's inconsistent explanations for the differing social security numbers and the improperly registered car, he was suspicious and asked Appellee for consent to search his car.

Appellee thereafter signed a written consent form, consenting to a search of his vehicle for "controlled substances, fruits of a crime or instruments of a crime." It is uncontested that Appellee's consent was knowing and voluntary.

The search revealed three allegedly stolen credit cards and Appellee was charged with two counts of receiving stolen property along with various traffic violations. *fn3 Appellee filed a motion to suppress the credit cards claiming they were the product of an illegal search and seizure.

The trial court found that, other than the motor vehicle summary offense, the trooper did not articulate any other facts which caused him to suspect criminal activity was afoot; and, therefore there were no objective circumstances to support a suspicion that controlled substances or fruits or instruments of a crime were hidden in the vehicle. Furthermore, the court held that detaining Appellee for the purpose of requesting permission to search the vehicle constituted an unreasonable seizure.

In reviewing a decision granting a motion to suppress, we must consider only the evidence of the defendant's witnesses and so much of the evidence of the prosecution as, read in the context of the record as a whole, remains uncontradicted. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 438 Pa. Super. 119, 123, 651 A.2d 1121, 1123 (1994). In addition, "if the evidence supports the court's factual findings, [the reviewing court] is bound by such findings and may only reverse if the legal Conclusions drawn therefrom are in error." Id.

Here, it is uncontested that Trooper Laskey had reasonable and articulable grounds to stop Appellee, but in order to justify detaining Appellee for further questioning, Trooper Laskey must have been able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the reasonable inferences from those facts, reasonably indicate that criminal activity might have been afoot. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968). Furthermore, our court has held that upon producing a valid driver's license and registration, a driver must be allowed to proceed without further delay, unless the police have "reasonable grounds to suspect an illegal transaction in drugs or other serious crime." Commonwealth v. Lopez, 415 Pa. Super. 252, 262, 609 A.2d 177, 182 (1992), or the officer is justified in believing that the individual is armed and dangerous. Commonwealth v. Grosso, 448 Pa. Super. 552, 558, 672 A.2d 792, 795 (1996).

The Commonwealth argues that Appellee's failure to produce all of the cards from the trunk for Trooper Laskey's inspection, the fact that Appellee had two driving records, a suspended driver's license, identification bearing three different social security numbers, and was driving a vehicle with a plate that belonged to another vehicle, provided Trooper Laskey with reasonable grounds to suspect that criminal activity was afoot and therefore, Appellee was not unlawfully detained.

Appellee counters this argument by citing to Commonwealth v. Pless, 451 Pa. Super. 209, 212, 679 A.2d 232, 233-234 (1996), wherein our court held that suspicious behavior alone was not enough to justify detaining the driver to request permission to search the car. When Pless was stopped for motor vehicle violations, the trooper noticed that she held her hands in a peculiar manner while searching through her purse for her license and that she made "furtive" side to side movements while waiting for the trooper to write up the warning. Although Pless' license and registration were in order, the trooper continued to question her after he issued the citation and ultimately received Pless' consent to search her vehicle. This court held that, without more, the suspicious behavior exhibited by Pless "was not enough for ...

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