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pre-textual Motor Vehicle Stops- Police Need and "Objective Basis" to Stop

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Not all pre-textual searches are bad in PA.  Police need an objective basis to stop the vehicle for a motor vehicle code violation.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Drug Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

In, Commonwealth v. Mammana, 2012 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 87 (Pa. County Ct. 2012), a trial court recently clarified the understanding of pre-textual stops.  The stop, while motivated by improper intentions, may be facially valid and thus, survive a suppression motion.

In Mammana, a Pa Trooper acknowledged that he was informed in advance of the vehicle stop that it was possible drugs could be found in the defendant's vehicle. However, he testified that the reason for the stop of the vehicle were the "large fuzzy dice" which he could see hanging from the rearview mirror while he was directly behind the vehicle.  He described the 3-D dice as approximately three (3) to four (4) inches in diameter.  It was his testimony that the dice constituted a "windshield obstruction", and served as justification for the vehicle stop. Thereafter, information was uncovered that the appellant was a wanted person and he was taken into custody.  An inventory search was then conducted and the marijuana was revealed.

The trial court concluded that "it is evident that the stop of the [vehicle] was not to enforce the Vehicle Code, but to conduct a criminal investigation unrelated to any perceived driving infractions. It was a "pre-textual stop," which has been explained as a "traffic stop that occurs when an officer has probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a motorist has violated a traffic law, but which the officer would not have made absent a desire, not supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion, to investigate a more serious offense."

The trial court noted that "[a] stop which is merely a pretext for some other investigation, however, does not mean that evidence uncovered must be suppressed. 'In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 135 L. Ed. 2d 89 (1996), the Supreme Court established a bright-line rule that any technical violation of a traffic code legitimizes a stop, even if the stop is merely a pretext for an investigation of some other crime.' (holding a traffic violation arrest will not be rendered invalid by the mere fact that it was a mere pretext for a narcotics search). It is also of "no import how severe a traffic violation is; even a minor traffic violation, if there exists probable cause [or reasonable suspicion], legitimizes a traffic stop."

Here, because the trooper could plainly see and describe the "fuzzy dice" in size and could testify that they "materially obstructed" the driver's view, then an objective reasonable basis existed for the stop, thus the intentions were not relevant.  The court stated that "the pre-textual nature of the stop, though bothersome, is not determinative. The State Police had every intention to stop the vehicle, and if not for 'fuzzy dice,' then for some other Vehicle Code violation."

If you've been arrested or charged with an offense stemming from a motor vehicle stop, you need experienced defense counsel to assist you in the investigation and preparation of your defense.  You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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