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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Upholds Officer’s Second Detention of Juvenile During Traffic Stop

A.A. (a minor) appealed her adjudication of delinquency on charges of DUI, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and a traffic violation. On appeal, A.A. solely challenged the juvenile court’s denial of her motion to suppress evidence. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed.

In January 2015, Sergeant Still of the Halifax Area Regional Police Department was on a routine traffic patrol when he observed a sedan straddling the center yellow lines. He conducted a check on the registration and found that it was expired, and then he initiated a traffic stop.

Sergeant Still testified that at the time of the traffic stop, he identified the driver as A.A. and the passenger as Kyle Lewis. When Sergeant Still requested the vehicle information, he observed A.A. to be confused and her movements to be sluggish. A.A. provided Sergeant Still with a driver’s license and an expired registration card, but she failed to provide proof of financial responsibility. While completing a citation for the expired registration and a warning for the failure to provide proof of financial responsibility, Sergeant Still observed Mr. Lewis making furtive movements around the passenger area. Sergeant Still returned to the vehicle and issued A.A. the citation and warning. At that time, Sergeant Still testified that he smelled an odor of marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle. After returning A.A.’s documents, Sergeant Still bid A.A. farewell and “broke contact.”

Sergeant Still subsequently re-engaged A.A., asking whether there was anything illegal in the car that he should know about. A.A. cut him off and said “no,” and then she asked if Sergeant Still wanted to search the vehicle. Sergeant Still responded in the affirmative. He testified that Mr. Lewis then voluntarily stated that there was a marijuana pipe in the car and that the two of them had smoked marijuana prior to driving.

Sergeant Still then had A.A. step out of the vehicle. Upon exiting, Still observed a light green pill on the driver’s seat. A.A. was directed to wait near the rear of the vehicle until back-up arrived. Mr. Lewis was then asked to exit the vehicle. In conducting a pat-down for officer safety, Sergeant Still discovered a BB gun in Mr. Lewis’ waistband. Mr. Lewis was subsequently handcuffed.

With A.A. and Mr. Lewis outside the vehicle, Still conducted a search of the interior. He recovered a small pill bottle in the center of the door on the passenger side that contained some marijuana residue, the pill from the driver’s seat, and a marijuana pipe in a leopard-print case in A.A.’s handbag. When asked what the pill was, A.A. responded that it was Klonopin, and she admitted to taking at least one that night. Mr. Lewis claimed that the pill bottle was his.

Following the search of the vehicle, Sergeant Still administered a field sobriety test to A.A. She failed the one-legged stand and provided six clues to impairment through the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. A.A. was subsequently placed under arrest.

In April 2015, a delinquency petition was filed against A.A. She filed a pretrial motion to suppress, which the court denied. A.A. was adjudicated delinquent and found in need of treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation. She was placed on probation, and her driver’s license was suspended for one year.

A.A. presented one issue on appeal:  whether the juvenile court erred in failing to suppress evidence obtained as the result of an illegal detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

A.A. did not contest the validity of Sergeant Still’s initial traffic stop of her vehicle. Instead, she argued that Sergeant Still terminated the initial traffic stop, and his re-initiating contact with her amounted to a second investigative detention that lacked reasonable suspicion.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court first agreed that Still’s re-initiating contact amounted to a second detention. Applying the totality-of-the-circumstances test, however, the court held that the sergeant’s second detention was legally justified.

It reasoned that aside from the traffic violations that compelled the traffic stop, the sergeant’s observations during the course of the stop established reasonable suspicion. First, A.A. appeared confused and sluggish. When Sergeant Still returned to his vehicle to process A.A.’s paperwork, he noticed Mr. Lewis making furtive movements around the passenger area of the vehicle. When the sergeant returned to the driver’s side window, he smelled marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle. Sergeant Still reasonably suspected that A.A. and Mr. Lewis may have been smoking marijuana in the vehicle and driving, which constituted the criminal offense of DUI. Based on these facts, it was reasonable for Sergeant Still to suspect that A.A. was engaged in criminal activity. Therefore, the court concluded A.A.’s detention was legal and affirmed.

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