Tuesday, April 19, 2011

DUI Appeal - Pennsylvania - Dice, Fresheners and Reasonable Suspicion

In Commonwealth v. Shabazz, --- A.3d ----, 2011 WL 1459160 (Pa.Super.), 2011 PA Super 81, the defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress based upon an illegal stop. The driver claimed that the stop of his vehicle for having foam dice and pine tree air fresheners was illegal. The appeals court first noted that in Pennsylvania, it is only illegal to have items hanging from the rearview mirror when they materially obstruct the driver's view. The defendant in fact cited to a prior Pennsylvania decision where it was held that the stop of a driver who had pine tree air fresheners was illegal, as there was no reasonalbe suspicion of a violation of the statute.

Distinguishing that prior ruling, the appeals court here held that the reason that the prior decision was in favor of the defendant was not based upon the item that was hanging from the mirror - rather the previous case was held in favor of an illegal stop based "on the officer's lack of an articulable and particularized description of the objects he observed hanging from the rearview mirror, and the impact of those objects on the visibility through the windshield." When addressing items hung from a rearview mirror, the court held that “the arresting officer's observations must establish not merely the presence of an object hanging from the rearview mirror, but must raise reasonable suspicion that the object materially obscured, obstructed or impaired the driver's vision through the front windshield.”

The appeals court then enunciated some important principles of law regarding the determination of reasonable suspicion at a hearing on a motion to suppress:

"The determination of whether an officer had reasonable suspicion that criminality was afoot so as to justify an investigatory detention is an objective one, which must be considered in light of the totality of the circumstances. It is the duty of the suppression court to independently evaluate whether, under the particular facts of a case, an objectively reasonable police officer would have reasonably suspected criminal activity was afoot. * * * “[I]n order to establish reasonable suspicion, an officer must articulate specific facts in addition to inferences based on those facts, to support his belief that criminal activity was afoot.” (emphasis in original). Thus, the facts must be testified to in support of the reasonableness of the officer's suspicion occasioned by his or her pre-stop observations."
In regard to forcing an officer to actually articulate a basis for reasonable suspicion, the Court made significant observation:

"Were this Court to conclude that an officer's bare testimony that he saw an object hanging from a rearview mirror which obstructed the driver's view, without any additional testimony or other evidence supporting the officer's conclusion that the object materially obstructed the driver's view, was sufficient to demonstrate reasonable suspicion to constitutionally support the intrusion of a vehicle stop, we would obviate the suppression court's role in ensuring there is an objectively reasonable basis for the vehicle stop, and expose every law-abiding motorist who hangs an object from his or her rearview mirror to a potentially unwarranted intrusion."
In the case sub judice, the appeals court found that the officer had sufficiently articulated the size of the objects and their location on the mirror in order to justify the stop of this vehicle. Thus the denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.

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