Commonwealth v. Bryant
2005 Pa. Super. 15, __A.2d__
Decided: January 13, 2005
The Court upheld the validity of an officer's Terry stop and pat-down search of an individual fleeing from the vicinity of a shooting in a high crime area, and approved the seizure of contraband found during the pat-down search.
On April 24, 2003, at roughly 8:19 p.m., Officer Ronal Kahlan and his partner heard six "popping" sounds which they concluded were gun shots. Moments after hearing the shots the officers observed three males - one of whom was the defendant running from the direction where the gunshots originated. The officers executed a Terry stop of the three individuals, and proceeded to conduct a pat-down search of each individual.
While Officer Kahlan was patting down the defendant, he felt an item in the defendant's pocket which, based on his experience, he suspected to be a package of narcotics. Officer Kahlan removed the package which was filled with several smaller bags, each containing an off-white chunky substance. This substance was later identified as crack cocaine. Based on the results of the search, the defendant was arrested and charged with possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine, and other related offenses.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the search. The trial court granted the defendant's motion, and the Commonwealth filed a timely appeal.
In reversing the trail court's grant of the suppression motion, the Superior Court examined whether the stop was lawful, and if so, whether the pat-down search and subsequent seizure of non-weapons contraband was within constitutional bounds.
First, the court stated that a Terry stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion. For an officer to have a reasonable suspicion sufficient to conduct a Terry stop, the officer must possess facts which would warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that criminal activity is afoot. Here, noting the high-crime area, the gunshots, the defendant's running from the direction of the shots, and the fact that only the defendant and his companions where fleeing from the area of the shots; the court found that Officer Kahlan did possess sufficient reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop.
Second, the court reiterated that an officer is entitled to conduct a limited search of an individual's outer clothing (pat-down search), where the officer has a reasonable belief that the individual is presently armed and dangerous. Again, looking at the totality of the circumstances, Officer Kahlan was justified in conducting a pat-down search of the defendant.
Finally, the court concluded that the drugs seized during the pat-down search were lawfully obtained. An officer may seize non-weapons contraband, detected during a pat-down search through his sense of touch, where the incriminating character of the object is immediately apparent from that touch. Here, considering Officer Kahlan's experience in conducting over 100 drug arrests - and his familiarity with drug packaging - the incriminating character of the package was immediately apparent to Officer Kahlan.
Therefore, the court found that the encounter and subsequent seizure of evidence were lawful under Terry.