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Pennsylvania Court Discusses Mere Encounters Versus Investigatory Stops in a DUI Case

If the police suspect that a person is driving under the influence of alcohol, they will typically detain them and conduct an investigation. The police do not have the authority to stop people without reasonable suspicion that they are committing a crime, though, and if they do, any evidence obtained during the stop may be inadmissible. In a recent Pennsylvania ruling issued in a DUI case, the court explained the differences between a mere encounter and an investigatory stop, ultimately rejecting the defendant’s argument that the stop in question was unlawful. If you are accused of a DUI offense, it is in your best interest to consult a Pennsylvania DUI defense attorney to assess your potential defenses.

History of the Case

It is alleged that the defendant was charged with multiple DUI crimes. The charges arose out of an encounter in which a police officer observed that she appeared lethargic and had a distant gaze while driving, followed her, and approached her after she parked and exited her car. They engaged in a conversation, and the officer immediately detected the strong smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath.

It is reported that the defendant performed poorly on field sobriety tests and underwent a blood draw, which revealed a BAC that was three times over the legal limit. Following her charges, the defendant filed a motion asserting that the traffic stop was unlawful and sought to suppress any evidence obtained from it. The trial court denied her motion, and a trial was held on stipulated facts. She was found guilty, and she appealed.

Mere Encounters Versus Investigatory Stops

On appeal, the defendant argued that the stop in question was investigatory in nature and, therefore, required reasonable suspicion, which was lacking. The court disagreed and affirmed her conviction.

The court explained that under the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, individuals are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts have established three categories of interactions between citizens and the police. The first category is a “mere encounter,” which does not require suspicion or compel a person to stop or respond. The second category is “investigative detention,” which allows temporary detention based on reasonable suspicion. The third category is an arrest or custodial detention, which requires probable cause.

The court elaborated that there is no clear distinction between these categories, but courts apply an objective test to determine if a seizure has occurred beyond a mere encounter. Known as the “free to leave test,” it assesses whether a reasonable person would feel compelled to ignore the police presence and continue with their activities. Whenever a police officer restrains an individual’s freedom to walk away, a seizure has taken place.

When evaluating the level of interaction, courts consider the overall circumstances objectively. They examine the totality of the surrounding circumstances to determine the nature of the interaction between the citizen and the police. In the subject case, the court noted that the trial court found that the interaction between the defendant and the officer was a mere encounter, as no reasonable person would believe they were being detained. Thus, it affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

Meet with an Experienced Pennsylvania DUI Defense Attorney

The police must have reasonable suspicion to investigate DUI crimes, and if they conduct a stop without the necessary level of suspicion, it may constitute a violation of the suspect’s constitutional rights. If you are charged with a DUI crime, it is wise to meet with an attorney to discuss your case. Zachary B. Cooper is an experienced Pennsylvania DUI defense lawyer who can advise you of your options and aid you in seeking a favorable result. You can contact Mr. Cooper through the form online or at (215) 542-0800 to set up a meeting.