Drugs discovered in a suspect’s pocket during an initial pat-down should have been suppressed where the illegal nature of the evidence was not immediately apparent without further manipulation, the Superior Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Griffin, __ A.3d __ (No. 804 WDA 2014, filed May 12, 2015). During a routine traffic stop, Pittsburgh police officers Auvil and Cyprowski conducted a Terry frisk of Glenn Griffin, who was a passenger in the vehicle. A bag containing 38 knotted baggie corners of cocaine was seized from Griffin’s pocket. The trial court denied Griffin’s motion to suppress the drugs and, following a bench trial, convicted Griffin of simple possession of a controlled substance. Griffin appealed.
The Superior Court, in a unanimous opinion by President Judge Emeritus Ford Elliott, reversed the judgment of sentence. By way of background, the Court reiterated that a Terry search is strictly limited to that which is necessary to discover weapons; any further manipulation of objects discovered during the initial pat-down is unlawful. The incriminating nature of contraband must be “immediately apparent from its tactile impression.” Here, the suppression court erred in finding that the “immediately apparent” requirement was met based upon the officers’ testimony, which the Court noted was contradicted by a dash cam video showing Officer Auvil repeatedly manipulating Griffin’s pocket. The Court observed that “[t]his is one of those rare cases where a dash cam video … can contradict a trial court’s factual finding often based on its credibility determinations.”