Sharply Divided Supreme Court Holds that Officer Detained Motorist by Activating his Emergency Lights

A state trooper’s interaction with a motorist, which included activating his vehicle’s overhead lights as he approached her parked vehicle, constituted an investigative detention, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Com. v. Barnes, __ A.3d __ (No. 111 MAP 2014, filed August 25, 2015). In the early morning hours of March 18, 2012, Trooper Jason Rogowski observed Tiffany Lee Barnes pull off the roadway, park between two car dealerships and turn off her vehicle lights. Rogowski had not observed any traffic violations but decided to investigate. He pulled up behind Barnes, activated his overhead lights, got out of his patrol car and approached Barnes’ vehicle. Rogowski observed indicia of intoxication and administered field sobriety tests, which Barnes failed. Barnes was arrested and charged with DUI. She filed a motion to suppress all evidence, arguing that Rogowski had conducted an investigative detention without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The trial court granted the motion and the Commonwealth appealed.

A unanimous panel of the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order in an unpublished memorandum decision. Com. v. Barnes (Pa. Super., No. 91 EDA 2013, filed January 15, 2014). The Court rejected the Commonwealth’s characterization of the initial interaction between Trooper Rogowski and Barnes as a mere encounter, holding that it constituted a seizure that required reasonable suspicion. In support, the Court cited Rogowski’s testimony that he was investigating the possibility of criminal activity and that Barnes was not free to leave, as well as Barnes’ testimony that she did not believe she could leave after Rogowski activated his overhead lights. The Court further held that Rogowski did not have reasonable suspicion to support an investigative detention because his testimony lacked any specific observations that led him reasonably to conclude, in light of his experience, that criminal activity was afoot.

On review, the Supreme Court affirmed by per curiam order. Two justices dissented. Justice Eakin, joined by Justice Stevens, disagreed with the proposition that a police officer’s activation of his patrol vehicle’s overhead lights automatically creates an investigative detention, noting that the lights are an important tool for identifying a police officer and alerting other motorists to the presence of stopped vehicles. Justice Eakin also criticized the lower courts for relying significantly on the subjective testimony of both Trooper Rogowski and Barnes about whether Barnes was free to leave the scene. Applying what he termed the “correct analytical test,” Justice Eakin opined that, viewing the facts objectively, Rogowski’s actions did not rise to the level of an unconstitutional detention.

In a separate dissenting statement, Justice Stevens opined that activating emergency lights on a police vehicle should not turn a mere encounter into an investigative detention. Justice Stevens criticized the majority for not issuing an opinion because it deprives the lower courts of guidance on determining when an encounter ripens into an investigative detention and how the activation of emergency lights fits into the analysis. Justice Stevens further observed that the lower courts in this case failed to objectively review the factual circumstances and ignored the policy consideration of protecting both the driver and the officer in a late night interaction in an unlit location.

By | 2017-05-19T22:51:27+00:00 September 14th, 2015|Categories: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Sharply Divided Supreme Court Holds that Officer Detained Motorist by Activating his Emergency Lights

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