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Commonwealth v. Lyles

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 21, 2014

HALEEM L. LYLES, Appellant

Argued March 11, 2014

Page 299

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on September 10, 2012 at No. 1052 EDA 2011 reversing and remanding the appeal from the Order dated March 15, 2011 of the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Criminal Division at No. CP-51-0009421-2009. Trial Court Judge: Michael E. Erdos, Judge; Intermediate Court John T. Bender, Anne E. Lazarus, Gene Strassburger, Judges.

For Haleem L. Lyles, Appellant: Paul Joseph Hetznecker, Esq.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee: Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Esq., Michael Lee Erlich, Esq., Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.



Page 300


This Court granted review to consider whether the Superior Court properly reversed the trial court's suppression of evidence, which was based on a finding that an officer's request for identification elevated an encounter to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion. We affirm that reversal.

At about 4:30 p.m. on July 11, 2009, two officers on patrol in a marked police vehicle saw appellant and another male sitting on the steps of a vacant building in south Philadelphia. The officers approached the men to question their reason for loitering there, as a large number of burglaries had recently been reported in the area. Appellant stated his grandmother lived on the block. One officer asked for appellant's identification, which appellant gave him. When the officer began writing down the identification information, he saw appellant place his hand in his right pocket and turn his right side away from the officer's view; the officer told appellant to stop reaching and remove his hand. Appellant again put his hand in his right pocket. Concerned appellant might be reaching for a concealed weapon, the officer instructed him to remove his hand for the second time. When appellant reached into the pocket a third time, the officer placed appellant against the wall of the building to conduct a safety frisk for weapons. Appellant once again put his hand in the pocket, so the officer forcibly removed it, and a plastic bag containing blue packets filled with crack cocaine became visible. The officer handcuffed appellant and seized the plastic bag. The officer then conducted a search incident to arrest and discovered a bag containing marijuana in appellant's left pocket.

Appellant was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance. He filed a motion to suppress the drugs, which the trial court granted. The court determined the issue was whether the officer's request for identification elevated the interaction from a mere encounter to an investigative detention. Suppression Court Opinion, 7/13/11, at 3. The court pointed out the officer testified at the suppression hearing he believed appellant was not free to leave while he was recording appellant's information. Id., at 4 (citing N.T. Suppression Hearing, 3/15/11, at 13). Notwithstanding its understanding that an officer's subjective beliefs are immaterial to seizure determinations, the court found " the fact the officer in question did not believe [appellant] was free to leave [was] highly suggestive of the tenor of their encounter." Id. The court concluded the officer's request for identification indicated his dissatisfaction with appellant's explanation for his presence and signified " an

Page 301

intention to investigate further," leaving appellant " with no option to leave, unless he wished to leave his identification card behind[,]" and a reasonable person would not have felt free to ignore the request and leave the scene. Id. The court relied primarily upon the Superior Court's holding in Commonwealth v. Au, 2009 PA Super. 231, 986 A.2d 864 (Pa. Super. 2009) (en banc), rev'd, 615 Pa. 330, 42 A.3d 1002 (Pa. 2012), where a mere encounter was held to escalate into an investigative detention upon an officer's request for identification. Id., at 867. As a result, the suppression court held " the request of [appellant] for his identification elevated the encounter between him and [the officer] to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion." Suppression Court Opinion, 7/13/11, at 6-7.

On appeal, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed and remanded, the majority discussing this Court's reversal in Au, finding the officer's request was not escalatory and that the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interaction showed a mere encounter, not an investigative detention. Commonwealth v. Lyles, 2012 PA Super. 191, 54 A.3d 76, 83-84 (Pa. Super. 2012).[1] In Au, while on patrol after midnight, an officer observed a vehicle parked in the lot of a business which had closed hours earlier. Without activating his emergency lights, the officer positioned his patrol car to illuminate the vehicle with his headlights to see if its occupants needed assistance. The officer asked the youthful occupants why they were parked in the lot; one passenger responded they were " hanging out." The officer then requested each of the occupants' identification. When Au, the passenger, opened up the glove compartment to retrieve his identification, the officer saw two baggies of marijuana in plain view.

Au was charged, and his suppression motion was granted. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed, as did an en banc panel, finding the encounter was transformed into an investigative detention upon the officer's request for identification. Au, at 867. The court noted the officer's " request for identification from all of the vehicle's occupants would have signaled to any reasonable person that the officer was unsatisfied with the response that the occupants were just hanging out, and that the officer wanted to investigate further" ; therefore, an investigative detention occurred upon the request for identification and " no reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the encounter." Id. (citation omitted). This Court reversed, holding " the arresting officer's request for identification did not transform his encounter with [Au] into an unconstitutional investigatory detention[,]" Commonwealth v. Au, 615 Pa. 330, 42 A.3d 1002, 1009 (Pa. 2012), and " a request for identification is not to be regarded as escalatory in terms of the coercive aspects of a police-citizen encounter[,]" id., at 1007 (citation omitted).

Here, the Superior Court majority concluded the suppression court's finding that the interaction constituted a detention once the officer requested identification was precisely the escalatory extrapolation rejected by this Court in Au. See Lyles, at 82 (" A request for identification does not, by itself, transform a mere encounter into an investigative detention." ). Noting the totality of the circumstances lacked coercion, intimidation, threats, excessive show of force, or any other circumstance indicating appellant was going to be detained, the majority recognized the only demand was for appellant to keep his hand out of his pocket. This did not substantially impair appellant's freedom of movement and was

Page 302

grounded in the officer's legitimate safety concerns. The majority also emphasized the suppression court's reliance on the officer's subjective belief was improper, as subjective beliefs are immaterial to an objective seizure determination. As a result, the majority concluded the totality of the circumstances failed to support a conclusion appellant had been seized.

Judge Strassburger concurred, aptly noting why subjective beliefs are not determinative: " When a police officer initiates an encounter, an individual as a practical matter never feels free to leave. H No responsible person would walk away from an encounter with a police officer. H[C]ase law does not comport with reality." Id., at 84 (Strassburger, J., concurring) (emphasis in original). Judge Lazarus filed a dissenting opinion, concluding the officer conducted an unlawful detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion and no reasonable person would have felt free to leave under the totality of the circumstances. Judge Lazarus noted " an officer's request for identification alone cannot transform a mere encounter into an investigative detention," id., at 85 (Lazarus, J., dissenting), but further stated:

[I]n the circumstances here, where the officer is not satisfied with the citizen's verbal response, and not satisfied with merely looking at his identification, but goes on to write down the information, there is no doubt that the officer [was] engaging in an investigation. [The officer's] act of recording [appellant's] information was a show of authority, indicating that [appellant] was not free to leave.

Id. Judge Lazarus asserted the majority framed the issue in a way to make Au determinative and established " a bright-line rule that an officer's request for identification does not elevate an encounter to an investigative detention[, an] approach [that] disregards both the totality of the circumstances test as well as the critical factual distinctions between Au and this case." Id., at 86.

Article I, § 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution both protect the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Commonwealth v. Smith, 575 Pa. 203, 836 A.2d 5, 10 (Pa. 2003) (citation omitted). Jurisprudence arising under both charters has led to the development of three categories of interactions between citizens and police. Id. (citations omitted). The first, a " mere encounter," does not require any level of suspicion or carry any official compulsion to stop or respond. The second, an " investigative detention," permits the temporary detention of an individual if supported by reasonable suspicion. The third is an arrest or custodial detention, which must be supported by probable cause. Id. (citations omitted).

In evaluating the level of interaction, courts conduct an objective examination of the totality of the surrounding circumstances. Commonwealth v. Strickler, 563 Pa. 47, 757 A.2d 884, 889 (Pa. 2000) (citations omitted). We are bound by the suppression court's factual findings, if supported by the record; however, the question presented -- whether a seizure occurred -- is a pure question of law subject to plenary review. See Commonwealth v. Jones, 605 Pa. 188, 988 A.2d 649, 654 (Pa. 2010) (citations omitted).

The totality-of-the-circumstances test is ultimately centered on whether the suspect has in some way been restrained by physical force or show of coercive authority. Strickler, at 890 (citation omitted). Under this test, no single factor controls the ...

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