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Commonwealth v. Bush

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 19, 2017


         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence September 29, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of York County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-67-CR-0007979-2015

          BEFORE: SHOGAN, MOULTON, JJ., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]


          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         This is an appeal from the judgment of sentence entered in the Court of Common Pleas of York County following Appellant Jesse Ray Bush's conviction in a non-jury trial on the charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance ("DUI"), driving under suspension as a habitual offender, and driving under suspension-DUI related.[1] Appellant's sole claim is that the police officer did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle, and therefore, the lower court erred in denying his pre-trial motion to suppress the physical evidence seized by the police. After a careful review, we affirm.

         The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows: Appellant was arrested, and on April 11, 2016, he filed a counseled pre-trial motion seeking to suppress the physical evidence seized by the police following the stop of his vehicle. Specifically, Appellant averred the stop of his vehicle was illegal since the police officer had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop.

         On June 28, 2016, the matter proceeded to a suppression hearing at which the sole witness was Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Raymond W. Rutter, who testified that he has been a trooper for approximately three years. N.T., 6/28/16, at 4. He indicated that, on November 1, 2015, at approximately 3:15 a.m., he was on duty and traveling in the left-hand lane on I-83 southbound near the Maryland state line when he observed the following:

[A] SUV, a dark colored SUV, which was traveling northbound, which had passed me, which had its high beams on. While that [SUV] had passed me there was another vehicle-that [SUV] was traveling in the right lane, there was a smaller sedan which was traveling in the left-hand lane, passing that [SUV] that was in the right which had its high beams on, and then I spun around just north of the Maryland line, the divider, and approached that [SUV] which I saw [with] its high beams on from the rear.

Id. at 6-7.

         When asked by the prosecutor how he could "tell that the high beams were on[, ]" Trooper Rutter answered that the lights "were bright to me looking at them." Id. at 7. Trooper Rutter indicated that his experience as a trooper assisted him in making his determination. Id.

         Moreover, when the prosecutor asked Trooper Rutter how close he was to the SUV when he first noticed the high beams were activated, Trooper Rutter testified that he was within 300 feet. Id. at 8. He further indicated that he "actually pas[sed] [the SUV] going south and they were still activated. So whatever the distance from two lanes over would be on the interstate, plus the center." Id.

         Trooper Rutter clarified that, when he turned his police vehicle around at the highway divider and proceeded northbound, he did so with the intent of stopping Appellant's SUV "for the violation of the high beams." Id. He indicated that, once he caught up to the SUV, he did not immediately stop it, but he continued to follow it as he knew that the welcome center, which would be a safe place to stop the SUV, was "just north of [his] location." Id.

         As he followed the SUV to the welcome center, Trooper Rutter noticed the vehicle "cross over the fog lines two times[.]" Id. at 8-9. Trooper Rutter testified that, at this point, in addition to the high beams traffic violation, Trooper Rutter suspected that Appellant might be DUI. Id. at 10-11. He clarified, however, that even if Appellant's SUV had not crossed the fog lines twice, he still intended to stop the vehicle "for the high beams violation." Id. at 11. Trooper Rutter indicated that he stopped Appellant's SUV, and charged Appellant with numerous crimes, including DUI-related charges and the high beams violation. Id. at 12.

         On cross-examination, Trooper Rutter clarified that, in the area where the incident occurred, between the northbound and southbound lanes on I-83, there was a guardrail at the height of the concrete barriers. Id. at 13-14, 16. He confirmed that Appellant was driving in the northbound right-hand lane, and he was traveling in the southbound left-hand lane; the divider between the northbound and southbound lanes was approximately sixty feet in width. Id. at 16. Trooper Rutter testified that the highways were straight without curves in this area, so the northbound and southbound vehicles passed each other. Id.

         Trooper Rutter reiterated that when he first noticed Appellant's SUV traveling northbound it "appeared to [him] that it had the high beams on." Id. at 14. He noted that he has "made numerous stops on high beam violations, and [Appellant's SUV] appeared to be [sic] high beams on to [him.]" Id. at 14-15. Further, Trooper Rutter noted that, based on his training and experience, Appellant's SUV had its high beams on. Id. at 15. He testified that Appellant's SUV's lights "affected [his] eyes, they were bright into [his] eyes, but it didn't make [him] swerve or crash or anything like that." Id. He noted that the sedan, which was passing Appellant's SUV, did not have its high beams activated. Id. at 16. Trooper Rutter testified that he is "pretty good" about "picking out" which vehicles have their high beams activated. Id. at 20. He reiterated that from his "training and experience it appeared to be high beams and that's why [he] initiated the stop [of Appellant's SUV]." Id. at 21.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the suppression court denied Appellant's motion to suppress, concluding that Trooper Rutter observed Appellant's SUV with its high beams improperly activated, and thus, he had probable cause to stop Appellant's SUV. Id. at 41-42. Subsequently, following a non-jury trial, the trial court convicted Appellant of the offenses indicated supra and sentenced him to an aggregate of nine and one-half years to twenty years in prison. This timely appeal followed, and all Pa.R.A.P. 1925 requirements have been met.

         On appeal, Appellant contends that the stop of his SUV was illegal since Trooper Rutter did not have the requisite probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop. Accordingly, he argues the trial court erred in denying his pre-trial motion to suppress the physical evidence seized as a result of the stop of his SUV.

         The issue of what quantum of cause a police officer must possess in order to conduct a vehicle stop based on a possible violation of the Motor Vehicle Code is a question of law, over which our scope of review is plenary and our standard of review is de novo. Commonwealth v. Chase, 599 Pa. 80, 960 A.2d 108 (2008). "[A]ppellate courts are limited to reviewing only the evidence presented at the suppression hearing when examining a ruling on a pre-trial motion to suppress." Commonwealth v. Stilo, 138 A.3d 33, 35-36 (Pa.Super. 2016) (citation omitted). Our Supreme Court has declared:

[The] standard of review in addressing a challenge to a trial court's denial of a suppression motion is whether the factual findings are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct. When reviewing such a ruling by the suppression court, we must consider only the evidence of the prosecution and so much of the evidence of the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record....Where the record supports the findings of the suppression court, we are bound by those facts and may reverse only if the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are in error.

Commonwealth v. Eichinger, 591 Pa. 1, 915 A.2d 1122, 1134 (2007) (internal citations omitted). "It is within the suppression court's sole province as factfinder to pass on the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony." Commonwealth v. Gallagher, 896 A.2d 583, 585 (Pa.Super. 2006) (quotation marks and quotation omitted).

         Our analysis of the quantum of cause required for a traffic stop begins with 75 Pa.C.S.A.§ 6308(b), which provides:

(b) Authority of police officer.-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.A. § 6308(b) (bold in original). "Traffic stops based on a reasonable suspicion: either of criminal activity or a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code under the authority of Section 6308(b) must serve a stated investigatory purpose." Commonwealth v. Feczko, 10 A.3d 1285, 1291 (Pa.Super. 2010) (en banc) (citation omitted). For a stop based on the observed violation of the vehicle code or otherwise non-investigable offense, an officer must have probable cause to make a constitutional vehicle stop. Feczko, 10 A.3d at 1291 ("Mere reasonable suspicion will not justify a vehicle stop when the driver's detention cannot serve an investigatory purpose relevant to the suspected violation.").

         Here, the trial court found that Trooper Rutter credibly testified that he stopped Appellant's vehicle on the basis that Appellant had his high beams activated in violation of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4306, use of multiple-beam road lighting equipment. Since an investigation following the traffic stop would have provided Trooper Rutter with no additional information as to whether Appellant violated Section 4306, probable cause was necessary to initiate the stop on this basis. See Commonwealth v. Slattery, 139 A.3d 221, 222-23 (Pa.Super. 2016) (holding that where the "vehicular stop is to determine whether there has been compliance with the Commonwealth's vehicle code, it is incumbent upon the officer to articulate....probable cause to believe that the vehicle or the driver was in violation of some provision of the code") (citation omitted)); Feczko, supra.

         Our Supreme Court has defined probable cause as follows:

Probable cause is made out when the facts and circumstances which are within the knowledge of the officer at the time of the [stop], and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime. The question we ask is not whether the officer's belief was correct or more likely true than false. Rather, we require only a probability, and not a prima facie showing, of criminal activity. In determining whether probable cause exists, we apply a totality of the circumstances test.

Commonwealth v. Martin, 627 Pa. 623, 101 A.3d 706, 721 (2014) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). Pennsylvania law makes clear, however, that a police officer has probable cause to stop a motor vehicle if the officer observes a traffic code violation, even if it is a minor offense. Chase, supra.

         Here, Trooper Rutter stopped Appellant's SUV for a violation of Section 4306, which provides, in relevant part, the following:

§ 4306. Use of multiple-beam road lighting equipment (a) Approaching an oncoming vehicle.-Whenever the driver of a vehicle approaches an oncoming vehicle within 500 feet, the driver shall use the low beam of light.

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4306(a) (bold in original).[2]

         In construing Section 4306(a) to determine its meaning, we are guided by the following legal precepts as set forth by our Supreme Court:

The purpose of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the General Assembly's intent and give it effect. 1 Pa.C.S.[A.] § 1921(a). In discerning that intent, the court first resorts to the language of the statute itself. If the language of the statute clearly and unambiguously sets forth the legislative intent, it is the duty of the court to apply that intent to the case at hand and not look beyond the statutory language to ascertain its meaning. See 1 Pa.C.S.[A.] ยง 1921(b) ("When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit."). "Relatedly, it is well established that resort to the rules of statutory ...

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