The Pennsylvania State Police routinely stop people that are traveling on interstate 80 for various traffic violations, such as speeding, driving in the left lane, or failure to use a turn signal. In some of those traffic stops, the police discover evidence of drug possession or possession of drug paraphernalia. In a recent Centre County case, the police stopped a man for speeding during the early afternoon, and the trooper claimed that the man was visibly shaking and that the car smelled strongly of perfume.
After issuing the man a citation, the trooper returned to his vehicle. The trooper then re-engaged the driver and asked additional questions about where the man was going. The trooper then asked for the driver's consent to search the car, and after refusing consent, the trooper detained the driver until a drug-sniffing dog was brought to the scene by another trooper. The drug dog alerted to various areas on the car, and the driver was taken into custody while the troopers towed the car and applied for a search warrant. The troopers found five open heroin bags and a silver spoon that was coated in suspected heroin-residue.
Pretrial Motion to Suppress - Illegal Detention
After being charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, in violation of 35 P.S. § 780-133(a)(32), the driver's Centre County criminal defense attorney filed a pretrial motion seeking the suppression of all evidence obtained from the search of the car because the trooper had no reason to detain the driver and bring in a drug dog. The penalties for a charge of Possession of Drug Paraphernalia are up to one year in jail and a $2,500.00 fine. The suppression argument from the drug defense lawyer was that the police only found the evidence as a result of the unconstitutional detention, so all evidence found after the detention must be discarded as "fruits of the poisonous tree."
In the case of Commonwealth v. Nearhoof, Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler agreed with the defense argument and held that the detention violated the driver's constitutional rights as set forth in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The judge's opinion noted that the trooper may have had a reason to be suspicious of the driver's actions, but the trooper did not have a basis to suspect that the driver was in the possession of drugs that would be required to justify the detention for the drug dog sniff. The judge also emphasized that the trooper did not smell the odor of any drugs emanating from the vehicle and that the driver was not a suspect in a drug-related DUI case. Since the court felt that the detention of the driver was unconstitutional, the judge suppressed the evidence found in the car. Unless the Centre County District Attorney's Office appeals the judge's decision, the prosecution will have no evidence to justify the Possession of Drug Paraphernalia charge and would have to dismiss the charge.