Pennsylvania State troopers from the Rockview Barracks in Centre County recently stopped a rented van from Michigan after the driver failed to use a turn signal when switching lanes. During the traffic stop, the police asked the driver if the police could search the van, and the driver consented. The troopers removed two Christmas gifts and a piece of luggage from the van. A drug-sniffing dog was brought to the scene and alerted to the Christmas packages, meaning it was suspected that the packages contained drugs. The packages were then opened, and the troopers found approximately 20 pounds of marijuana. The man was arrested, taken before a Centre County judge for a Preliminary Arraignment on charges of Possession With Intent to Deliver Marijuana in violation of 35 P.S. 780-113(a)(30).
Traffic Stop and Warrantless Search for Drugs
I sat through the preliminary hearing in this matter, which consisted of testimony from the arresting officer, and based upon that testimony, I believe that the prosecution may have some problems winning this case. The trooper clearly had a reason to conduct an initial traffic stop based upon a perceived change of lanes without the use of a turn signal. While failing to use a turn signal when traveling at high speeds on Interstate 80 is a minor violation, it is still a violation and thereby gives the officer authority to stop the driver. The trooper initially conducted a routine traffic stop, checking on the man's paperwork, searching for any outstanding warrants, and the trooper then had the man exit his car and proceed to the back thereof to issue a warning. The police are permitted to order a person to exit a vehicle for officer safety purposes, but the trooper here testified that he had the man exit simply to discuss the paperwork, which would not appear to be a lawful command. The trooper's order to the driver to exit the car is a critical factor that makes it appear that the trooper was exercising more detention power than was required for a routine traffic stop. The trooper could have readily handed the warning to the driver while the driver remained in the car, explained the warning, and sent the driver on the way.
When the man was at the back of the car, the trooper questioned him about whether or not the vehicle contained any drugs or other contraband. The man said no, and then the trooper asked to search the vehicle. The subsequent search of the car led to the discovery of approximately 20 pounds of marijuana.
Pretrial Motion to Suppress Marijuana Evidence
The issue in this case will be whether or not the man validly consented to the search or was consent given due to duress and coerciveness from the trooper's actions. If the court finds that the man was subjected to an investigative detention that exceeded the reason for the initial stop, which was a minor turn signal violation, then the court would find that the consent was not valid and would order the suppression of evidence. The suppression of the marijuana evidence would lead to the dismissal of the charges.
The Centre County judge will be considering whether or not the level of coercion that was applied was less than that associated with an ordinary traffic stop. Factors that will be reviewed are whether the police displayed weapons, used unusual commands, had an aggressive behavior or any use of language or tone by the officer that was not commensurate with the circumstances, and the number of officers that were present. At no point in this interaction did the trooper advise the man that the man was free to leave, which is a very important factor. By failing to inform the man that he was free to leave, it makes it appear more likely that the man did not feel that the initial traffic stop had ever ended, so the man would feel that he had to consent or otherwise he would not be permitted to leave.
When a search is conducted under the consent exception to the warrant requirement, the prosecution bears the burden of establishing that the consent was the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice-not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied, or a will overborne-under the totality of the circumstances. I believe that the Centre County District Attorney's Office is going to have a very difficult battle winning this case. That office lost a somewhat similar case when a Bellefonte judge ordered the suppression of 12 pounds of marijuana from an I-80 traffic stop. Hopefully this man hires an experienced State College drug defense attorney that can present an aggressive and legally based defense as I believe that this case is a winner for the defense.