In an area of criminal law that has drawn some recent scrutiny from appellate courts in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case over whether an officer's request for a man's identification turned the underlying encounter from a "mere encounter" into an "investigative detention."
The high court's decision in the matter of Commonwealth v. Lyles will resolve whether a Philadelphia judge properly suppressed the drugs police found on Haleem Lyles in 2009. If the circumstances do not rise to the level of an investigative detention, the high court will likely affirm the state Superior Court, which reversed the trial court's decision to suppress the evidence. If the circumstances were an investigative detention, then the court would seemingly be constrained by the trial court's factual finding that the officer didn't have reasonable suspicion and would be bound to suppress the evidence.
One late afternoon in July 2009, officers observed Lyles and another man sitting outside a vacant building in South Philadelphia. According to one of the officers' testimony, because of the large number of burglaries reported in the area, he approached Lyles and the other man to question them. Lyles told the officer his grandmother lived on the street and the officer, referred to as "Officer Dobbins," asked him for identification. As Dobbins was taking Lyles' information down, Lyles reached into his pocket twice over the objection of the officer, who was concerned Lyles was reaching for a concealed weapon. When Dobbins went to frisk the man, he ended up forcibly removing a bag of alleged crack cocaine from Lyles' hand. The other officer, "Officer Lai," completed the search and found a bag of a substance believed to be marijuana.
A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge granted a motion to suppress the evidence filed by Lyles, finding no reasonable suspicion existed to request his identification.
The Superior Court reversed, finding the interaction between the men was a "mere encounter" and not an "investigative detention" when Dobbins requested Lyles' ID.
According to Judge John T. Bender, who wrote for the split panel, if the interaction had risen to the level of investigative detention, the trial court would have rightfully suppressed the evidence as "fruit of the poisonous tree" because it made the finding that Dobbins did not have reasonable suspicion to suspect that criminal activity was going on at the time.
If the interaction turned out to be a "mere encounter," then the allegations of Lyles' surreptitious movements related to his pocket would have justified the limited search for weapons that turned up the alleged drugs and rendered the evidence admissible.
The trial court found the request for ID turned the case from a mere encounter to investigative detention, relying on the cases of Commonwealth v. Au, which the state Supreme Court decided last year, and Commonwealth v. Stevenson, a 2003 Superior Court decision. The state appealed, arguing the officer's request for ID was not a seizure under the totality of circumstances.
In Au, the justices declined to find an investigation had taken place when an officer, without putting on his lights, blocking the suspect, pulling his gun or making an intimidating movement, asked for a man's ID out of his parked car in the midnight hour. The officer spotted what he believed to be marijuana in the glove box of the car after the man went into it to get his ID.
In Stevenson, the Superior Court found an investigation had taken place when an officer and his partner approached the defendant's car on foot, ordered him to get off the phone and, eventually, out of the car.
Bender, writing in Lyles, found the Stevenson case distinguishable.
Constrained by Au, Bender said that but for the trial court's inference that the ID request escalated the case into a situation where a reasonable person would not be free to leave, the rest of the circumstances would not have supported a conclusion that Lyles had been seized.
"Dobbins did not tell [Lyles] that [Lyles] was not free to leave, nor was there any credible evidence presented of physical restraint," Bender reasoned. "The officers did not draw their weapons or position themselves in a manner that obstructed [Lyles'] ability to walk away. Furthermore, as noted by the commonwealth, [Lyles] had voluntarily surrendered his identification, and there is no evidence that, in the few moments between the identification request and [Lyles'] engagement in furtive movements, [Lyles] had requested that the identification be returned."
Bender's opinion drew a concurrence from Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger, who wrote separately to point out that he thought the case law had developed into an "Alice in Wonderland scenario, as judges attempt to determine if an individual is or is not free to leave."
He said the reality was simple: If a cop approaches you, you can't walk away.
Judge Anne Lazarus dissented, opining that an officer's request for ID cannot turn a mere encounter into an investigative detention.