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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Stop Based on Informant’s Tip Backed By Reasonable Suspicion

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed an appellant’s conviction of DUI and related charges, holding his arrest based on an informant’s tip was supported by reasonable suspicion, and his conviction was supported by the weight of the evidence.

John Vincent Kennedy was convicted following a bench trial of DUI, general impairment, careless driving, and restriction on alcoholic beverages, among other charges. He was sentenced on June 5, 2015 in Dauphin County. Kennedy filed a post-sentence motion, arguing that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, which the trial court denied. Kennedy appealed.

To the appeals court, Kennedy argued that the trial court erred when it denied his pretrial suppression motion. Specifically, he argued that the arresting officer did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code occurred. The appeals court explained that the proof necessary to effectuate a vehicle stop is governed by 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6308(b), which establishes that reasonable suspicion is required to effectuate a traffic stop based on suspicion of criminal activity or a suspected violation of the Motor Vehicle Code requiring additional investigation.

At Kennedy’s suppression hearing, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper William Sheakley testified that he was dispatched to investigate a call received regarding an erratic driver at roughly 8:30 p.m. The caller, who identified herself as Marsha Hein, indicated that the individual was driving a blue Ford Bronco northbound on Route 209 between two named roads and provided the vehicle registration number. Hein further indicated that the driver was driving “all over the road, possibly intoxicated.” When Trooper Sheakley located the vehicle, he verified that the registration number was consistent with what the caller had provided to the dispatchers and discovered that the vehicle was registered to Kennedy. Following the vehicle, Trooper Sheakley observed the Bronco cross the fog line. Based on the caller’s report of erratic driving and his own observations of Kennedy’s car crossing the fog line, Trooper Sheakley initiated a traffic stop on suspicion of DUI.

Based on the record, the appeals court concluded that Trooper Sheakley had the requisite reasonable suspicion to stop the appellant for suspected DUI. The court reasoned the officer was able to corroborate the description of Kennedy’s Bronco and the vehicle registration number provided by the caller. The known informant’s description of Kennedy’s erratic driving, combined with Trooper Sheakley’s own observations of the vehicle crossing the fog line, constituted specific and articulable facts that Kennedy might be driving under the influence, such that further investigation was required. Thus, the court concluded, Trooper Sheakley had reasonable suspicion, and the trial court did not err in denying the appellant’s motion to suppress.

The appellant next argued the trial court erred in denying his post-sentence motion challenging his DUI as contrary to the weight of the evidence. In disagreeing, the appeals court first explained that in order to obtain a conviction, the Commonwealth had to prove “the accused was driving, operating, or in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle during the time when he or she was rendered incapable of safely doing so due to the consumption of alcohol.” The appellant argued that the video of Trooper Sheakley’s traffic stop did not support a finding that the appellant was incapable of safely driving his car. The appeals court held that additional evidence introduced by the Commonwealth established the requisite proof.

At trial, the appeals court recalled, the Commonwealth presented testimony of Marsha Hein, the tipster who informed the police of the appellant’s erratic driving. Hein testified that on April 4, 2014, she observed a vehicle driving erratically on Route 209 and started to follow it. Hein testified that the vehicle was swerving and crossed both the double yellow line and the white line on the shoulder. She specified that the vehicle swerved over the double yellow lines twice and the white fog line once as it weaved over the road for approximately three to four minutes. She relayed her observations to police, along with a description of the vehicle, the vehicle’s location, and the vehicle’s registration number.

Moreover, Trooper Sheakley testified that when he conducted the traffic stop, he detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from Kennedy and his vehicle. He also indicated that Kennedy was moving slowly and swaying and, as a result, had failed to adequately perform the field sobriety tests. Based on the testimony of Hein and Trooper Sheakley, the appeals court concluded that the verdict was supported by evidence. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

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More Blog Posts:

Nottingham Man Sentenced to Prison for Giving Beer to Amish Teens, Teen Causing DUI Crash, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, June 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Trial Court’s Identification of Defense Counsel as Public Defender Not Grounds for Mistrial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, June 1, 2016.

Pennsylvania Parents Petition for Stricter DUI Laws, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Reverses DUI Defendant’s Grant of Early Parole, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, April 15, 2016.