Skilled Legal Representation For the People of Philadelphia & Beyond SCHEDULE A CONSULTATION

Public Servant Exception Upheld: Commonwealth v. Patterson, November 7, 2023

Town Law Publishing March 20, 2024

car is parked on the side of a highway during the evenin

Com. v. Terry Allen Patterson, 2023 PA Super 228 (Nov. 7, 2023)

Facts of the Case Surrounding the Incident

On the evening of November 15, 2021, at approximately 8:18 p.m., Sergeant Adam Shope of the Northwest Regional Police Department was patrolling the eastbound lanes of Route 283 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. During his patrol, Sergeant Shope, a nine-year veteran with specialized training in DUI detection, noticed a disruption in traffic flow. Several vehicles in the left lane were merging into the right lane to avoid an obstruction. As he approached the area, Sergeant Shope identified the cause of the disturbance: a white Nissan Rogue parked on the left shoulder of the highway, partially blocking the left travel lane.

The Nissan Rogue, positioned at mile marker 16.8 near the Snyder's Road overpass, was in a precarious location within a zone where the speed limit was 65 miles per hour. The vehicle's left tires were near the edge of the asphalt, abutting the grass median, while its right tires extended well into the left lane of Route 283 East. This placement resulted in a significant portion of the lane being obstructed, creating a potential hazard for other motorists who had to maneuver around the stopped vehicle.

Concerned for the safety of the driver and the potential risk to other drivers on the highway, Sergeant Shope activated his emergency lights to signal a traffic stop. He then positioned his patrol car behind the Nissan Rogue, exited his vehicle, and approached the driver's side to make contact with the individual inside. The primary objective of Sergeant Shope's intervention was to check on the well-being of the driver, later identified as Terry Allen Patterson, and to render any necessary assistance.

As Sergeant Shope engaged with Patterson, he immediately noticed signs of impairment. Patterson exhibited a blank stare, confusion, and disorientation, coupled with sluggish movements. These observations led Sergeant Shope to suspect that Patterson might be under the influence of a controlled substance. Patterson was unable to provide coherent answers to simple questions, including why he had parked his car in such a manner on the highway.

Further investigation revealed that Patterson was driving with a license that had been suspended due to a prior DUI offense. Additional observations by Sergeant Shope and a second responding officer raised suspicions of drug use, specifically the use of phencyclidine (PCP), as evidenced by a wet cigarette found inside the car. A search incident to arrest led to the discovery of a significant amount of cash and a baggie containing 11 separate packets of crack cocaine, along with another baggie of cocaine powder. Subsequent blood tests confirmed the presence of PCP in Patterson's system.

The incident raised serious concerns about public safety and the judgment exercised by Patterson in stopping his vehicle in a manner that obstructed a major travel lane on a limited access highway. The facts surrounding the incident prompted legal proceedings to address the charges of possessing a controlled substance with intent to deliver, knowingly possessing a controlled substance, driving under the influence (DUI), and violating the Motor Vehicle Code prohibition against driving with a suspended license for a prior DUI.

Lower Court's Decision

Patterson moved to suppress the physical evidence recovered during the stop, arguing that the initial detention was without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County conducted a suppression hearing, during which Sergeant Shope's testimony and video evidence were presented. The court ultimately denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the stop was justified under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement. The court found Patterson guilty of possessing a controlled substance with intent to deliver, knowingly possessing a controlled substance, DUI, and driving with a suspended license for a prior DUI.

car is being pulled over by a police vehicle

Superior Court's Ruling

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, in its ruling, affirmed the judgment of the lower court, holding that the initial seizure of Terry Allen Patterson's vehicle by Sergeant Adam Shope was lawful under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement. This exception is part of the broader community caretaking doctrine, which recognizes that police officers have duties that extend beyond the investigation of criminal activity, including ensuring the safety and welfare of the community.

In applying the public servant exception, the Superior Court relied on the test established in Commonwealth v. Livingstone, which requires that the officer must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that reasonably suggest assistance is needed. The court found that Sergeant Shope met this requirement when he observed Patterson's vehicle partially blocking the left lane of a limited access highway, creating a potential hazard for other motorists. The court noted that any reasonable officer would believe assistance was needed under these circumstances, and it would have been a dereliction of duty to ignore such an apparent safety hazard.

The court also addressed Patterson's argument that the seizure was not justified because there were no specific signs of distress, such as inclement weather, accident signs, or activated hazard lights. The court rejected this argument, stating that the stopped car itself, blocking a significant portion of the travel lane on a high-speed highway, presented a real hazard that needed to be addressed. The court emphasized that the concern for the safety of other motorists on the highway, in addition to the motorist of the stopped car, is encompassed within the community caretaking doctrine.

Furthermore, the court found that Sergeant Shope's actions were independent of the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence. His sole objective in initiating the traffic stop was to check on the well-being of the occupant and to mitigate the peril presented by the vehicle's position on the highway. The court concluded that the only reasonable and narrowly tailored means available to Sergeant Shope to render assistance and mitigate the peril was to initiate a traffic stop with his emergency lights activated.

Finally, the court held that once assistance was provided, and the peril was mitigated, any further police action, such as the discovery of contraband, would be evaluated under traditional Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. In this case, the court found that the initial confrontation between Sergeant Shope and Patterson provided reasonable suspicion and then probable cause for DUI, which justified the subsequent search and arrest.

car is parked on the side of a highway during the evenin

The Superior Court affirmed the judgments of sentence, holding that the initial seizure of Patterson's vehicle was lawful under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement, and that the subsequent actions taken by Sergeant Shope were justified based on the totality of the circumstances.