Innocent Activity In Full View of Unconcealed Police Presence Not Grounds for an Investigative Stop


Commonwealth v. Walton, 2013 PA Super 3, 1/8/13 (9 pages)

A Ridley Township police officer, part of a regional drug task force in full uniform and inside a fully marked police car was watching activity at a bar across a busy street on MacDade Boulevard in Delaware County. In the parking lot of the bar, he saw a male and female walking around and pacing back and forth, on and off their cell phones, looking around. The officer was suspicious, because “that is how a lot of people meet drug dealers.” That is when Mr. Walton chose to drive onto the scene in a Toyota and pull up next to the couple. To the officer’s eyes,  “some type of deal was going to go down,” so the officer lit up his car and drove into the parking lot. The couple ran away, and the officer approached the car with Walton in it.  He saw Walton put his hands down his pants in an apparent attempt to conceal something, so he asked Walton to step out of his vehicle.  The officer saw the tip of a plastic sandwich bag sticking out of Walton’s wasteband. He seized it, and saw it contained a white powdery substance. The officer arrested Walton, and found another bag with white chunky substance in it. In the car were 73 more bags with a controlled substance. Walton’s motion to suppress was denied, he was convicted and sentenced, and he appealed.

The Court, gauging this interaction along the scale of mere encounters, investigative detentions, and formal arrests, assessed Walton’s meeting with the officer as an investigative detention. This was a police encounter that escalated into an investigatory stop, so the test of its reasonableness was whether the officer had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot before activating his lights and effecting the investigative detention. It did not pass the test.

The activities the officer saw were consistent with innocent activity, and he had nothing more than a hunch something illegal was about to happen. Walton and the couple were acting in full view of a marked police car. Objectively there was nothing suspicious about it.  The Court also set out a nice recap of caselaw on investigative detentions. The sentence was vacated, and the case remanded.

The case can be found here.

Image from Police Cars and Other Interesting Things.

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