The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that it is unlawful for PA police to detain and search someone based solely on the premise they may be carrying a concealed weapon.
Today, the PA Supreme Court released a 53-page majority opinion written by Justice David Wecht on the case brought before them to address whether the mere knowledge of someone carrying a firearm constitutes reasonable suspicion of a crime.
“On June 28, 2014, at approximately 2:30 a.m., a remote camera operator conducting live surveillance of a gas station and convenience store in the city of Allentown, notified police officers that a patron of the establishment was in possession of a firearm. According to the suppression court’s factual recitation, the “camera operator advised officers that the [observed individual] showed the firearm to another patron, put the firearm in his waistband, covered it with his shirt, and walked inside” the convenience store.”
The citizen in question is Michael Hicks, who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon by the state of Pennsylvania. While officers responded to the scene, Hicks had already entered and exited the gas station and was seated in his vehicle when numerous squad cars pulled up.
Officers operating on the belief that Hicks had been brandishing the weapon, and not simply showing it to another patron of the gas station, took reasonable caution in ensuring they treated Hicks as a credible threat.
However, the PA Supreme Court contends officers were misled by dispatchers of Hicks’ alleged criminal activity.
“… police officers received information that Hicks “showed” the firearm to the other patron, the officer who testified at the suppression hearing repeatedly stated that the dispatch advised officers that the suspect was “brandishing” a firearm—a term with a distinct connotation.”
The majority opinion letter adds that the misinformation added a certain extra tension to the situation.
“Believing that Hicks had moved his hands around inside the vehicle, Officer Ryan Alles drew his service weapon as he approached Hicks’ vehicle and ordered Hicks to keep his hands up. Officer Kyle Pammer, arriving at the vehicle moments after Officer Alles, restrained Hicks’ arms while Officer Alles reached into the vehicle and retrieved Hicks’ handgun from a holster on his waistband. Hicks “was removed from the vehicle for safety reasons and handcuffed.”
At that point, the officers noticed the odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from Hicks. The officers then searched Hicks’ person and, in his pocket, discovered a bag that contained a small amount of marijuana,” the Court’s opinion letter states.
Officers soon discovered that Hicks had been issued a valid license to carry a concealed firearm, and was not charged with any firearm related crimes, nor with “brandishing” the firearm at the other gas station patron.
But, since they suspected Hicks’ intoxication and found him to be in possession marijuana, he was arrested and charged with DUI, and possession of marijuana. Both of which could be considered legitimate crimes.
However, the problem lies in the method by which the information about those crimes was obtained. Had the officers not stopped and searched Hicks, they would have never known of the small amount of marijuana nor his intoxication. And the basis of why Hicks was stopped in the first place is where the problem arises.
Officers stopped and searched Hicks based solely on the fact that he had a firearm on his person, and not for suspicion of a crime.
A clear breach of the 4th Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In support of the 4th Amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made a landmark decision on the Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
Justice Wecht called the landmark decision:
“A cornerstone of modern law enforcement methods, “stop and frisk” is a practical tool designed to encourage the effective investigation and prevention of crime, while maintaining a balance between the constitutionally protected privacy interests of the individual and the needs and safety of law enforcement personnel. Only two conditions must be satisfied to validate the practice—one to justify the “stop,” and another to allow a “frisk.”
But Justice Wecht goes on to say that the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has been doing the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court of the US has laid down as a “bedrock rule.”
Citing Commonwealth v. Robinson, 600 A.2d 957 (Pa. Super. 1991), Justice Wecht details that the Pennsylvania Superior Court wrongly decided,
“… possession of a concealed firearm by an individual in public is sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion that the individual may be dangerous, such that an officer can approach the individual and briefly detain him in order to investigate whether the person is properly licensed.”
The Justice goes on to say that that since this decision, “… deem(s) lawful the seizure of an individual based solely upon his possession of a concealed handgun, even though he was licensed in Pennsylvania to carry a firearm in such a manner,” it does not follow the requirements of the Terry Doctrine established by the US Supreme Court, and also, “… subverts the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment.”
For these reasons, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overruled the Robinson decision and reversed the order of the PA Superior Court that it is lawful to detain and search a citizen based solely on the knowledge that they are carrying a concealed firearm.
“Michael Hicks was deprived of the protections of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the evidence derivative of his seizure should have been suppressed,” the opinion letter states.
What do you think of this substantial decision in Pennsylvania? Leave a comment below to let us know.