Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Commonwealth v. Chase

November 26, 2008

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
v.
BRUCE ALAN CHASE, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County entered on April 20, 2005 at No. CP-25-CR-0003520-2004.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin

CAPPY, C.J., CASTILLE, NEWMAN, SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, BALDWIN, JJ.

ARGUED: September 13, 2006

OPINION

At 3:30 a.m. on August 24, 2004, Officer John Stephens was parked off Route 5, a two-lane highway with a broken-yellow center line and no traffic signals. Officer Stephens watched appellee's car for 20 to 30 seconds before it passed him; he saw the car cross the center line for a few seconds and estimated it was traveling above the speed limit. Officer Stephens followed the car; he saw it cross the right fog line for a few seconds, cross the center line for a few seconds, veer right onto Old Lake Road, veer into the left side of that road while making a wide right turn onto West Park Road, then turn left onto Edgewood Drive. Officer Stephens pulled the car over, having observed it for eight-tenths of a mile.

Based on this and additional information collected after the stop, appellee was charged with DUI-General impairment, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(a)(1). He was also charged with driving on roadways laned for traffic, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3309(1) ("Driving within single lane.--A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety."), and driving on the right side of roadway, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3301(a) ("General rule.--Upon all roadways of sufficient width, a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway .."). Appellee moved to suppress all evidence obtained after the stop, which he alleged violated both the federal and state constitutions.

The trial court granted appellee's suppression motion, concluding both constitutions require probable cause to stop a vehicle for an alleged traffic violation, rendering unconstitutional the Vehicle Code provision authorizing stops based on reasonable suspicion. The Commonwealth appealed pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 722(7), which vests this Court with exclusive jurisdiction where a trial court has invalidated a statute on constitutional grounds. No ruling was made on the two summary offenses.*fn1

The former version of 75 Pa.C.S. § 6308(b) required an officer to have "articulable and reasonable grounds to suspect a violation of [the Vehicle Code]" to effectuate a vehicle stop. 75 Pa.C.S. § 6308, amended by 2003 Pa. Laws 24, § 17 (effective Feb. 1, 2004). This Court interpreted "articulable and reasonable grounds" to be the equivalent of "probable cause," requiring police have probable cause to believe the vehicle or its driver was in violation of the Vehicle Code. Commonwealth v. Gleason, 785 A.2d 983, 986 (Pa. 2001); Commonwealth v. Whitmyer, 668 A.2d 1113, 1116-17 (Pa. 1995).

Gleason thus held the statutory standard for stops based on potential Vehicle Code violations was probable cause, even if an investigative stop would be constitutionally permitted in a non-vehicle situation based on reasonable articulable suspicion.*fn2 Gleason did so based on interpretation of the former § 6308(b). The legislature thereafter modified § 6308(b), bringing it into line with requirements of constitutional case law for stops not involving the Vehicle Code. The amended statute provides:

Whenever a police officer is engaged in a systematic program of checking vehicles or drivers or has reasonable suspicion that a violation of this title is occurring or has occurred, he may stop a vehicle, upon request or signal, for the purpose of checking the vehicle's registration, proof of financial responsibility, vehicle identification number or engine number or the driver's license, or to secure such other information as the officer may reasonably believe to be necessary to enforce the provisions of this title.

75 Pa.C.S. § 6308(b). Thus, when an officer has reasonable suspicion a violation of the Vehicle Code is occurring or has occurred, he may interrupt the privileged operation of a vehicle on the public highways and stop the vehicle for the investigative purposes stated therein. Id. The changes became effective February 1, 2004, and thus apply here.

The issue before us is whether the legislature could determine the quantum of cause an officer needs to stop a vehicle for an alleged violation of the Vehicle Code. This being a question of law, our scope of review is plenary and our standard of review is de novo. Craley v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, 895 A.2d 530, 539 n.14 (Pa. 2006). A statute will only be found unconstitutional if it "clearly, palpably and plainly" violates the Constitution. Commonwealth v. MacPherson, 752 A.2d 384, 388 (Pa. 2000). There is a strong presumption legislative enactments are constitutional. Id.; see also 1 Pa.C.S. § 1922(3) (presumption legislature did not intend to violate federal and state constitutions when enacting legislation).

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution*fn3 protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. In the Interest of D.M., 781 A.2d 1161, 1163 (Pa. 2001). A vehicle stop constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996). The key question in determining if a seizure is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment is if it is reasonable. Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 450 (1990).

A warrantless seizure is presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to a few specifically established, well-delineated exceptions. Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 133 n.4 (1990) (citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)). One exception allows police to briefly detain individuals for an investigation, maintain the status quo, and if appropriate, conduct a frisk for weapons when there is reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. See Terry, supra. The Fourth Amendment does not prevent police from stopping and questioning motorists when they witness or suspect a violation of traffic laws, even if it is a minor offense. United States v. Booker, 496 F.3d 717, 721-22 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

Nevertheless, appellee argues the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause, relying on Whren, which stated, "As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred." Whren, at 810. However, this language only confirms that when police possess the higher quantum of evidence, probable cause, they may conduct a vehicle stop; the Court did not state probable cause is required to stop.

Appellee goes on to argue some federal circuits "have held that probable cause is required to conduct a traffic stop." Appellee's Brief, at 25 (citations omitted). However, a review of those cases reveals they too merely confirm that a vehicle stop based on probable cause was lawful-they do not state probable cause was required for every stop, merely because a vehicle was involved. See United States v. Puckett, 422 F.3d 340, 342 (6th Cir. 2005) ("Puckett contends that the district court erred in not granting his motion to suppress because [the officer] lacked probable cause to stop him and therefore the fruits of the illegal search are inadmissible. Probable cause is determined by the totality of the circumstances .."); United States v. Granado, 302 F.3d 421, 423 (5th Cir. 2002) ("The decision to stop an automobile is constitutional 'where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.'") (quoting Whren, at 810); United States v. Harrell, 268 F.3d 141, 148 (2d Cir. 2001) ("As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.") (quoting Whren, at 810); United States v. Freeman, 209 F.3d 464, 466 (6th Cir. 2000) ("It is true that 'so long as the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred or was occurring, the resulting stop is not unlawful.'") (quoting United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir.1993)).*fn4

The Third Circuit recently found the Second, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits all "construed Whren to require only that the police have 'reasonable suspicion' to believe that a traffic law has been broken." Delfin-Colina, at 396 (quoting United States v. Willis, 431 F.3d 709, 723 (9th Cir. 2005) (Fletcher, J., dissenting)); see also Holeman v. City of New London, 425 F.3d 184, 189-90 (2d Cir. 2005); United States v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); United States v. Lopez-Soto, 205 F.3d 1101, 1104 (9th Cir. 2000); United States v. Hill, 195 F.3d 258, 264 (6th Cir. 1999); United States v. Navarrete-Barron, 192 F.3d 786, 790 (8th Cir. 1999); United States v. Ozbirn, 189 F.3d 1194, 1197 (10th Cir. 1999).

The First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and District of Columbia Circuits also have indicated reasonable suspicion is sufficient to justify a vehicle stop. See Booker, at 721-22 (reasonable suspicion existed to investigate placement of temporary tag on vehicle); United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005) (noting officer must have reasonable suspicion that some illegal activity, such as traffic violation, occurred, or is about to occur); United States v. Chhien, 266 F.3d 1, 5-6 (1st Cir. 2001) (stating vehicle stop "must be supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity"); United States v. El, 5 F.3d 726, 730 (4th Cir. 1993) (noting "if an officer has probable cause or a reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, there is no intrusion upon the Fourth Amendment"); United States v. Tipton, 3 F.3d 1119, 1122 (7th Cir. 1993) (following Terry and stating Fourth Amendment is no bar to police stopping and questioning motorists when they witness or suspect violation of traffic laws, even if offense is minor).

These federal cases acknowledge the constitutionality of a vehicular Terry stop to investigate suspected criminal activity. See Delfin-Colina, at 394-95 (investigating whether necklace was illegally hanging from rear view mirror); Holeman, at 189-90 (investigating suspected prowler); Lopez-Soto, at 1103 (investigating if car was properly registered); Hill, at 264-65 (investigating whether driver was carrying drugs); Navarrete-Barron, at 790-91 (investigating whether driver was carrying drugs); Ozbirn, at 1196-97 (investigating if driver was asleep or impaired); but see Chanthasouxat, at 1272-73, 1281 (officer stopped vehicle for not ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.