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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Jamal Rice: Superior Court Reverses Suppression of Firearm Evidence (November 7, 2023)

May 20, 2024

 police officers approaching a suspect in a high-crime urban areaCommonwealth v. Rice, 2023 Pa. Super. 227 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2023)

Background of the Case

On May 27, 2021, Officer Zachary Zgleszewski and his partner were patrolling the area of 4500 North 19th Street in Philadelphia due to increased gun violence, homicides, and drug sales. Around 7:25 p.m., Officer Zgleszewski observed Jamal Rice exiting a corner store with an "L" shaped bulge in his waistband, which he suspected to be a firearm. As the officers approached, Rice changed direction and began walking away. When Officer Zgleszewski exited the car and approached Rice, Rice fled on foot, discarding a firearm during the chase. Rice was apprehended, and the firearm was recovered. Rice was charged with multiple firearm offenses and filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence, which was granted by the lower court.

Lower Court Ruling

The Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas held a suppression hearing on March 25, 2022. The court found that the initial interaction between Officer Zgleszewski and Rice escalated from a mere encounter to an investigative detention when the officer commanded Rice to "come here." The court concluded that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to justify this detention and granted Rice's motion to suppress the firearm and other physical evidence obtained during the encounter. The Commonwealth appealed this decision, arguing that the pre-flight interaction was a mere encounter and that Rice's unprovoked flight in a high-crime area provided reasonable suspicion for his pursuit and the recovery of the firearm.

Superior Court Ruling

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, upon review of the case, reversed the decision of the lower court, which had granted Jamal Rice's motion to suppress the firearm evidence. The Superior Court's analysis was detailed and thorough, focusing on the classification of the initial police encounter and the subsequent justification for the pursuit and seizure of evidence.

Initial Encounter Classification

The Superior Court began by examining whether the interaction between Officer Zgleszewski and Rice constituted a mere encounter or an investigative detention. In Pennsylvania, interactions between law enforcement and citizens are classified into three categories: mere encounters, investigative detentions, and custodial detentions. A mere encounter does not require any level of suspicion and carries no compulsion to stop or respond. An investigative detention, on the other hand, must be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and subjects a suspect to a stop and period of detention but does not amount to an arrest.

police officers approaching a suspect in a high-crime urban areaCiting Commonwealth v. Newsome, 170 A.3d 1151 (Pa.Super. 2017), the court highlighted that a police officer's request for a citizen to "come here" does not, by itself, elevate a mere encounter to an investigative detention unless there is a show of authority or force that indicates the citizen is not free to leave. In Newsome, an officer in a marked patrol car, without activating lights or sirens, asked a defendant to stop and come over. This interaction was ruled a mere encounter because the officer did not brandish a weapon, obstruct the defendant's path, or threaten consequences for non-compliance.

Similarly, the Superior Court found that Officer Zgleszewski's statement to Rice to "come here," without more, did not escalate the encounter to an investigative detention. The officers did not engage their vehicle's lights or sirens, did not brandish weapons, and did not obstruct Rice's path. Furthermore, Rice did not comply with the command but instead fled, indicating he did not feel compelled to stop. Thus, the court concluded that the initial interaction remained a mere encounter, not requiring reasonable suspicion.

Justification for Pursuit

The court then addressed whether Officer Zgleszewski had reasonable suspicion to pursue Rice following his unprovoked flight. The court emphasized that reasonable suspicion must be based on specific, articulable facts and reasonable inferences from those facts, viewed through the lens of a trained law enforcement officer. This standard was articulated in Commonwealth v. Jones, 874 A.2d 108 (Pa.Super. 2005), where the court explained that the totality of circumstances must be considered to determine if the officer had a particularized and objective basis for suspecting criminal activity.

In this case, several factors contributed to reasonable suspicion. First, Officer Zgleszewski was patrolling a high-crime area known for gun violence and drug sales. Second, the officer observed an "L" shaped bulge in Rice's waistband, consistent with the shape of a firearm. Third, Rice exhibited evasive behavior by changing direction upon seeing the police and then fleeing when approached.

The court drew parallels with Commonwealth v. Jefferson, 853 A.2d 404 (Pa.Super. 2004), where the defendant's unprovoked flight in a high-crime area was deemed sufficient to create reasonable suspicion for police pursuit. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. McCoy, 154 A.3d 813 (Pa.Super. 2017), the court held that evasive behavior in a high-crime area, combined with unprovoked flight, justified reasonable suspicion for pursuit. These precedents supported the conclusion that Officer Zgleszewski's observations and Rice's behavior collectively provided reasonable suspicion to justify the pursuit.

discarded firearm under a parked car

Lawful Recovery of Firearm

The court also considered the lawfulness of recovering the firearm abandoned by Rice during his flight. In Commonwealth v. Cook, 558 Pa. 50, 735 A.2d 673 (1999), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that when police possess reasonable suspicion to stop a suspect, they may lawfully recover contraband abandoned by the suspect during flight. Given that the officers had reasonable suspicion to pursue Rice, the recovery of the discarded firearm was lawful.


The Superior Court concluded that the initial interaction between Officer Zgleszewski and Rice was a mere encounter, not requiring reasonable suspicion. Rice's unprovoked flight, combined with the officer's observations and the high-crime context, provided sufficient reasonable suspicion for the officers to pursue Rice. Consequently, the recovery of the firearm discarded by Rice was lawful. The court determined that the suppression court had erred in granting the motion to suppress the firearm evidence. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the suppression order and remanded the case for further proceedings, reaffirming the principles established in the cited precedents and applying them to the facts of this case.