Am I Free To Leave After A Traffic Stop? A Common Police Tactic – Drug Evidence Discovered After Initial Traffic Stop Suppressed By PA Superior Court

Most of us have been through a routine traffic stop. After giving the officer our license, registration, and insurance the officer generally comes back with either a warning or a citation. Not many of us have been asked to stick around and answer additional questions after this point, and most probably wouldn’t know when we are truly free to leave. The Superior Court recently decided that Tam Ngyuen didn’t understand he was free to leave following a traffic stop, holding the second interaction involving the discovery of illegal narcotics was a seizure unsupported by reasonable suspicion and must be suppressed.

On April 27, 2015, the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Ngyuen vacated the 3-6 year prison sentence imposed on Mr. Ngyuen, ruled the second detention was illegal, the drugs seized inadmissible at trial, and remanded to the trial court. Mr. Ngyuen, was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for speeding and following too closely. The trooper returned to the vehicle and returned the information to the driver and Mr. Ngyuen along with a written warning, and told them they were “free to leave.” Before the pair could depart the scene, the trooper asked why they were so nervous and where they were coming from. The trooper then asked for consent to search the vehicle which was given. Prescription pills, powder cocaine and crack cocaine were uncovered in the search of the vehicle and their persons.

Mr. Ngyuen sought to have the evidence suppressed, but the trial court denied the motion. On appeal, the Superior Court noted the three classifications of interactions a citizen may have with police.

  1. A mere encounter, where a citizen is free to leave at any time and the encounter need not be supported by any amount of probable cause.
  2. An investigative detention, where the citizen is detained and therefore the officer must be able to articulate specific observations that lead him reasonably to conclude that criminal activity is afoot and the person stopped was involved in that activity.
  3. An arrest/custodial interrogation, where the citizen is typically handcuffed and/or interrogated. Due to the sever restriction on liberties during this type of encounter, an arrest/custodial interrogation must be supported by probable cause.

The court found that a reasonable citizen stopped for speeding, given a written warning, told they were “free to leave” but then immediately interrogated by the trooper about the trip would not think they were in fact, free to leave. Thus the second interaction constituted a detention, requiring reasonable suspicion to be lawful. The Superior Court found evidence of the driver being overly apologetic, nervous, and talkative was insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion. As such, the detention was unlawful and all evidence seized pursuant to the search was deemed inadmissible.

As you can see, police tactics and the law of search and seizure are transforming every day. A proper search and seizure analysis requires a command of the law and familiarity with the facts of the case. If you are charged with a criminal offense, it is extremely important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Steven P. Trialonas and our attorneys at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. remain vigilant of changes in the law that impact the rights of our clients.

Am I Free To Leave After A Traffic Stop? A Common Police Tactic – Drug Evidence Discovered After Initial Traffic Stop Suppressed By PA Superior Court was last modified: August 31st, 2015 by Steven Trialonas