Free to Leave?May 18, 2015
Case News: Commonwealth v. Ngyuen, 2015 PA Super 1998.
During a routine traffic stop for speeding and following too closely, when the officer approached the car, the driver seemed very nervous and very apologetic for the traffic infraction. The officer went to his patrol car ran and criminal history on the driver. The officer learned the driver had previous drug convictions. The officer gave a warning to the driver for the traffic infractions and told him he was free to leave. However, as the officer turned and began walking to his car, he turned back and asked the defendant if he would step out of the car so he could ask him some more questions. He then asked if he could frisk the defendant and search the car, to which the defendant consented.
During the second interaction, the officer recovered various drugs and related drug paraphernalia. The officer charged the defendant with Possession with the Intent to Deliver (PWID). A motion to suppress was denied and the defendant was convicted on PWID.
The Superior Court overturned the conviction, holding the second interact with police was a seizure for which reasonable suspicion was required. The Superior Court made two major points in their decision. First, no reasonable person would think they were free to leave when they were already out of the car and the officer reengaged them in conversation. Second, the officer had the information about the prior narcotics convictions before the second interaction, so the officer could not possibly argue the knowledge of the previous drug convictions caused the second interaction. Further, no new information was gained by the officer to create reasonable suspicion and the initial nervousness and apologetic nature of the defendant did not establish reasonable suspicion.