Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

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

[U] Commonwealth v. Brzoska

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 27, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of May 15, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-54-CR-0001329-2012




Appellant, Steve Brzoska, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered on May 15, 2013. We affirm.

The factual and procedural background of this case is as follows. On June 17, 2012, Corporal Michael Dissinger of the Mahanoy City Police Department was on patrol when Officer Romanick[1] relayed to him information obtained from a confidential informant indicating that Appellant was driving without a valid driver's license. N.T., 5/15/13, at 4, 6. Corporal Dissinger confirmed the information with his dispatcher. Id. at 6. He then observed Appellant drive past his location. Id. at 8. Corporal Dissinger conducted a traffic stop of Appellant's vehicle. Id. Corporal Dissinger noticed the taillight on Appellant's vehicle was not working; however, Appellant was not charged with that offense. Id. at 14-15.

When approached, Appellant gave Corporal Dissinger his brother's name and date of birth. Id. at 9. Appellant consented to a search of his vehicle and then was released. Id. at 10. After the stop was completed, Officer Romanick informed Corporal Dissinger that Appellant often gives his brother's name and date of birth. Id. Corporal Dissinger proceeded to review Department of Motor Vehicles' photos of Appellant and Appellant's brother and realized that Appellant was in fact driving the vehicle. Id. at 10-11. Corporal Dissinger also confirmed that Appellant did not have a valid license at the time of the traffic stop. Id. at 12.

On July 30, 2012, Appellant was charged via complaint with giving false information to a law enforcement officer[2] and driving with a suspended license.[3] A two-count information charging the same offenses was filed on October 29, 2012. A bench trial was conducted on May 15, 2013. Appellant orally moved to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the traffic stop which the trial court denied. Appellant was found guilty of driving with a suspended license and was immediately sentenced to pay a fine of $200.00 plus costs and fees. This timely appeal followed.[4]

Appellant raises one issue for our review:
Was the stop of the Appellant[, ] without probable cause and reasonable suspicion[, ] a pretext stop? Appellant's Brief at 5 (capitalization removed).[5]

"When reviewing a challenge to a trial court's denial of a suppression motion, our standard of review is[] limited to determining whether the [trial] court's factual findings are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct." Commonwealth v. Delvalle, 74 A.3d 1081, 1084 (Pa.Super. 2013) (citation omitted). "[O]ur scope of review is limited to the factual findings and legal conclusions of the [trial] court." In re L.J., 79 A.3d 1073, 1080 (Pa. 2013) (citation omitted). "[W]e are limited to considering only the evidence of the prevailing party, and so much of the evidence of the non-prevailing party as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole." Id.

"As we have explained, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of [the Pennsylvania] Constitution protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. To safeguard these rights, courts require police to articulate the basis for their interaction with citizens in three increasingly intrusive situations." Commonwealth v. Clemens, 66 A.3d 373, 378 (Pa.Super. 2013) (internal alterations, quotation marks, and citation omitted).

We have described three types of police/citizen interactions, and the necessary justification for each, as follows:

The first of these is a mere encounter (or request for information) which need not be supported by any level of suspicion, but carries no official compulsion to stop or respond. The second, an investigative detention, must be supported by reasonable suspicion; it subjects a suspect to a stop and period of detention, but does not involve such coercive conditions as to constitute the functional equivalent of arrest. Finally, an arrest or custodial detention must be supported by probable cause. . . .
To guide the crucial inquiry as to whether or not a seizure has been effected, the [Supreme Court of the United States] has devised an objective test entailing a determination of whether, in view of all surrounding circumstances, a reasonable person would have believed that he was free to leave. In evaluating the circumstances, the focus is directed toward whether, by means of physical force or show of authority, the citizen-subject's movement has in some way been restrained. In making this determination, courts must apply the totality-of-the-circumstances approach, with no single factor dictating the ultimate conclusion as to whether a seizure has occurred.

Commonwealth v. Williams, 73 A.3d 609, 613–614 (Pa.Super. 2013) (internal alteration, quotation marks, and citation omitted). The burden is on the Commonwealth to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence was legally obtained. See Commonwealth v. Howard, 64 A.3d 1082, 1087 (Pa.Super. 2013), appeal denied, 74 A.3d 118 (Pa. 2013) (citation omitted).

Appellant contends that the traffic stop was illegal because Corporal Dissinger lacked probable cause to conduct the stop. We conclude, however, that the traffic stop at issue in this case involved only a temporary period of detention and, hence, the interaction between Corporal Dissinger and Appellant was an investigative detention. See Commonwealth v. Caban, 60 A.3d 120, 127 (Pa.Super. 2012), appeal denied, 79 A.3d 1097 (Pa. 2013) (citation omitted) (a traffic stop is an investigative detention). Therefore, the stop needed to be supported by reasonable suspicion.

Alternatively, Appellant contends that Corporal Dissinger lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. The information upon which Corporal Dissinger relied was relayed to him by a fellow officer who, in turn, acquired it from a confidential informant. As we have explained.

To have reasonable suspicion, police officers need not personally observe the illegal or suspicious conduct, but may rely upon the information of third parties, including tips from citizens. Naturally, if a tip has a relatively low degree of reliability, more information will be required to establish the requisite quantum of suspicion than would be required if the tip were more reliable. . . .
Reasonable suspicion, like probable cause, is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability. Both factors-quantity and quality-are considered in the totality of the circumstances-the whole picture, that must be taken into account when evaluating whether there is reasonable suspicion. Thus, if a tip has a relatively low degree of reliability, more information will be required to establish the requisite quantum of suspicion than would be required if the tip were reliable.
When the underlying source of the officer's information is an anonymous call, the tip should be treated with particular suspicion. However, a tip from an informer known to the police may carry enough indicia or reliability for the police to conduct an investigatory stop, even though the same tip from an anonymous informant would likely not have done so.
Indeed, identified citizens who report their observations of criminal activity to police are assumed to be trustworthy, in the absence of special circumstances, since a known informant places himself at risk of prosecution for filing a false claim if the tip is untrue, whereas an unknown informant faces no such risk. When an identified third party provides information to the police, we must examine the specificity and reliability of the information provided. The information supplied by the informant must be specific enough to support reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring. To determine whether the information provided is sufficient, we assess the information under the totality of the circumstances. The informer's reliability, veracity, and basis of knowledge are all relevant factors in this analysis.

Commonwealth v. Washington, 63 A.3d 797, 803 (Pa.Super. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

In assessing the specificity and reliability of the information upon which Corporal Dissinger relied, we look to the totality of the circumstances. The confidential informant in this case was known to Officer Romanick and provided specific information that Appellant was driving with a suspended license. Thus, information showed that Appellant was committing a specific criminal offense in a specific location. Because of his knowledge and familiarity with the confidential informant, Officer Romanick believed the information to be credible enough to request that Corporal Dissinger initiate a traffic stop. There is no requirement that the officer who received the information from the confidential informant act upon that information. It is proper for one officer to request a fellow officer to act upon the information. See Commonwealth v. Howard, 64 A.3d 1082, 1088 (Pa.Super. 2013), appeal denied, 74 A.3d 118 (Pa. 2013). The only evidence that Appellant presented regarding the credibility of the confidential informant was his own testimony. The trial court found that Appellant's testimony was not credible. Trial Court Opinion, 7/16/13, at 4. Thus, under the totality of the circumstances, the information from the confidential informant was sufficient to provide the necessary reasonable suspicion for Corporal Dissinger to conduct a traffic stop of Appellant and request his driver's license. See 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7511 (driver required to produce driver's license when requested).

Appellant also contends that the stop was a pretext to search for narcotics. The certified record belies Appellant's assertion. Corporal Dissinger testified at trial that he was not searching for drugs when he stopped Appellant. See N.T., 5/15/13, at 12-13. Instead, Corporal Dissinger testified that he requested permission to search the vehicle based upon Appellant's behavior. Id. As the traffic stop in this case was not a pretext, but rather was supported by reasonable suspicion, we conclude that the trial court properly denied Appellant's motion to suppress.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

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