Whether it’s a gun possession or drug dealing case in Philadelphia, Chester or Delaware County, searches and seizures of contraband often happen on the street. Pedestrians who are minding their own business are often stopped by uniformed and plain clothes officers.
What happens when an officer searches an individual and finds a gun, or when an officer asks an individual whether they have anything illegal on them and the person admits that they do? Can the individual get the charges dismissed due to constitutional law violations, i.e., by filing a Motion to Suppress Evidence?
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Pennsylvania (State) & Federal Law – When Officers Can Stop People on the Street
Under both state and federal constitutional laws, police officers are legally allowed to approach citizens and ask questions. This kind of encounter is often referred to as a “mere encounter.” For example, a police officer in Philadelphia is investigating a recent robbery in a certain neighborhood. The officer is allowed to ask members of the public whether they’ve seen anything suspicious or have any information about the recent crime. The same is true of an officer who is walking their beat and stops a random pedestrian to ask about where the person is heading, what they’re doing, etc.
However, once the encounter becomes a detention or seizure, i.e., where a reasonable person wouldn’t feel free to leave, the officer must have reasonable basis to believe that the person is or was involved in a crime.
No Hard and Fast Rule
Individuals who were charged with crimes, such as drug possession or dealing, after being stopped by police on the street often want to know whether they can get the charges dismissed based on a constitutional law violation. The answer depends on the facts of the case.
It isn’t simple to tell the difference between a mere encounter and a detention or seizure. There’s no hard and fast rule. Just because an officer asks to see someone’s ID or driver’s license doesn’t make an encounter into a detention. Rather, Pennsylvania courts look to the circumstances surrounding the encounter/detention, including:
- police car lights/siren activated,
- officer had gun drawn,
- officer requested and obtained the individual’s ID/license,
- officer ran a warrants check,
- officer asked about what was in the individual’s pockets or personal items.
The more factors are present, the better the odds of succeeding in a Motion to Suppress Evidence.