Pennsylvania Criminal Law – Running or Walking Away From Police

Many criminal cases in Philadelphia for drug possession, drug dealing and illegal gun possession (Violation of PA’s Uniform Firearms Act, VUFA) often involve situations where the defendant ran or tried to walk away from police. While running or walking away, the defendant may drop contraband which is then recovered by police, or the defendant may be chased, stopped and frisked.

In these kinds of situations, the initial legal question is whether the police violated constitutional rights by 1. chasing someone who is fleeing, and 2. once catching the person, conducting a frisk or pat down. In other words, are police allowed to chase, stop and then frisk someone who runs away or tries to walk away?

For example, a Philly resident is walking down the street. A cop car pulls up next to the individual who then runs as soon as they see the police car. Are the police allowed to chase, stop and then frisk (pat down) the person?

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TERRY STOP (STOP & FRISK LAW)

Police are only allowed to stop a person on the street and conduct a basic pat down of the person if police have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is “afoot.” PA courts refer to this type of stop as a Terry stop. To justify such a stop, the officer has to be acting on more than just a vague hunch. The officer must be able to point to specific facts that justify the suspicion. Learn more about stop and frisk law in Philly.

RUNNING OR WALKING AWAY FROM POLICE, GETTING CHASED BY POLICE

As a general rule, running or walking away when approached by police or running after seeing an officer or patrol car is not, in and of itself, reason to justify a police chase and stop/frisk of the person. In other words, an officer cannot say that walking away or running away justifies chasing after that person and then conducting a stop and frisk. There must be some other fact that supports reasonable suspicion to 1. chase someone who is running way, and 2. stop and frisk the person. See Commonwealth v. Matos, a 1996 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case which held that police who chase after someone who is running away must have reasonable suspicion that justifies the chase in order to retrieve contraband dropped by the suspect during the chase.

RelatedPassenger Rights in a Traffic Stop in Philly

In addition, multiple Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions show that merely walking away or even running away, without another fact to show reasonable suspicion, won’t justify a stop and search:

  • 2010, Commonwealth v. Taggart (running away from officers who are investigating a robbery does not justify chase and recovery of dropped contraband)
  • 2001, In re M.D. (drugs suppressed where police acted on a partial description of a robbery suspect and chased defendant who ran away and dropped the drugs)
  • 2001, Commonwealth v. Carter (walking away after seeing police car approaching does not support reasonable suspicion to justify a stop)
  • 1996, Commonwealth v. Tither (traffic stop not supported when driver drove away once police car pulled up)
  • 1991, Commonwealth v. Martinez (putting hands in coat and walking away when police approached does not support a stop)

In Commonwealth v. Key, a 2001 Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the defendant was charged with heroin possession after being stopped and searched on the street. Two plain clothes officers were watching the defendant who quickly turned and tried to walk away. The officers questioned the defendant, ran his name through a database, and then told the defendant he was free to go. Afterwards, an officer asked the defendant whether he had any drugs on him because he was in a high crime area, to which the defendant said no. The officer asked if he could check the defendant’s pockets, and after the defendant agreed, the officer found a bag of heroin.

After the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and found him guilty, the defendant appealed. The Superior Court held that the encounter, where the officers questioned the defendant and ran his name through a database, was not justified because at that point, there was no reasonable suspicion. The court stated that the defendant walking away after noticing that he was being watched did not establish reasonable suspicion.

KEY FACTOR – BEING IN A HIGH CRIME AREA

However, state and federal laws are clear that being in a high crime area and running or walking away when police approach does justify a stop and search. See Illinois v. Wardlow, a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case which upheld a conviction where police officers chased, stopped and frisked a defendant who fled in a high crime area. Likewise, in Commonwealth v. Jefferson (2004), the PA Superior Court upheld a drug conviction where the defendant, who was in a high crime area, fled after he noticed a police officer.   

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