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Commonwealth v. Livingstone - 644 Pa. 27, 174 A.3d 609 (2017)

Rule:

It is undeniable that emergency lights on police vehicles in Pennsylvania serve important safety purposes, including ensuring that the police vehicle is visible to traffic, and signaling to a stopped motorist that it is a police officer, as opposed to a potentially dangerous stranger, who is approaching. Moreover, it is not doubted that a reasonable person may recognize that a police officer might activate his vehicle's emergency lights for safety purposes, as opposed to a command to stop. Nevertheless, upon consideration of the realities of everyday life, particularly the relationship between ordinary citizens and law enforcement, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania simply cannot pretend that a reasonable person, innocent of any crime, would not interpret the activation of emergency lights on a police vehicle as a signal that he or she is not free to leave.

Facts:

On June 14, 2013, at approximately 9:30 p.m., Pennsylvania State Trooper Jeremy Frantz was traveling northbound on Interstate 79 in his marked police cruiser when he observed a vehicle pulled over onto the right shoulder of the road; the engine was running, but the hazard lights were not activated. Trooper Frantz activated his emergency lights and, with his passenger window down, pulled alongside the stopped vehicle. Appellant, the sole occupant of the vehicle, was sitting in the driver's seat and appeared to be entering an address into her vehicle's navigation system. Trooper Frantz motioned for Appellant to roll down her window, and he asked her if she was okay. Appellant answered affirmatively. When Trooper Franz reached appellant’s vehicle on foot, Trooper Frantz asked to see appellant’s driver license. Afterwards, Trooper Frantz asked appellant to exit her vehicle so that he could perform field sobriety tests, the results of which indicated the presence of alcohol in appellant’s system. Consequently, Trooper Frantz placed appellant under arrest. A blood test was thereafter conducted which revealed a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .205%. Accordingly, appellant was charged with DUI – General Impairment, DUI – Highest Rate of Alcohol, and Careless Driving. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence of her BAC on the basis that, once Trooper Frantz activated his emergency lights and pulled alongside her vehicle, she was subjected to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion and concluded that Trooper Frantz, after observing Appellant's vehicle on the side of the interstate, had a duty to determine whether appellant was in need of assistance, and his act of approaching appellant’s vehicle with his overhead emergency lights was a mere encounter. Appellant appealed her judgment of sentence to the Superior Court, wherein she argued that Trooper Frantz's act of pulling alongside her vehicle with his emergency lights activated, when her vehicle was stopped on the side of the road, but the hazard lights were not activated and there were no visible signs of distress to the driver or vehicle, and when Trooper Frantz had not observed any vehicle violations or received any report of a vehicle in need of assistance, was an investigative detention and that the trial court erred in deeming it a mere encounter. The Superior Court ruled affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Issue:

Was a driver, stopped on the side of the road but in no apparent distress or in violation of any law, subject to an investigative detention by a police officer who had activated his emergency lights?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the appellant was subjected to an illegal investigatory detention without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when a police officer, ostensibly seeking only to inquire about her need for assistance, pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle. The Court averred that although the public servant "exception" to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine was recognized, which, in certain circumstances, will permit a warrantless seizure, the doctrine did not justify the detention of appellant.

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