A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case from January 2020 revisits the issue of a detention and when officers are allowed to approach individuals on the street. In Commonwealth v. Cost, the court held that an investigative detention occurred when an officer asked for and obtained an individual’s ID card, ran a warrant check and then while still holding the ID, asked about the contents of the individual’s personal items. As a result, seizure of the individual’s gun was illegal.
PA Criminal Law – What’s an Investigative Detention?
When a police officer stops an individual on the street, the individual is always free to go, unless the officer has either reasonable suspicion or probable cause that the individual committed a crime. If the officer has reasonable suspicion, they may detain the individual to investigate. This is known as an investigative detention.
In the Cost case, the defendant was approached by officers in an alleyway. Two plain clothes officers pulled up in an unmarked police car after seeing the defendant and others in an alley in a high crime area. After the defendant gave his ID, one of the officers conducted a warrant search. During this time, the other officer asked the defendant whether he had anything in his backpack. The defendant admitted he had a gun in his bag. He was then arrested and charged with various firearm/gun possession charges.
At trial, the judge held in the defendant’s favor, finding that by asking what was in the defendant’s bag, the officer went beyond a mere encounter and had detained the defendant. Without reasonable suspicion that the defendant had committed a crime, the detention was unlawful.
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Holding Onto Your ID While Running a Warrants Check
The critical issue in the Cost case was whether holding onto a person’s ID to search for outstanding warrants escalates a mere encounter into an investigative detention or seizure (which requires reasonable suspicion). The Cost court found that running a warrants check,
“sends a strong signal to a reasonable person that the officer will not allow him to leave while the inquiry is in progress…However long the warrant check took, while it was under way it conveyed a message that [the defendant’s] liberty was being restrained.”
However, the Cost case did not rule that holding an ID card while running a warrants check constitutes an investigative detention. Instead, the court zeroed in on the fact that the officer asked what was in the defendant’s backpack, while the warrant check was being done. As a result, the court ruled in favor of the defendant. Read more about criminal charges after police asks to see ID.