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Signaling Scrutiny: Reevaluating Probable Cause in the Traffic Stop of Brian Michael Slattery

Town Law Publishing March 7, 2024

car is being pulled over by a police vehicleCommonwealth v. Slattery, 139 A.3d 221, 2016 Pa. Super. 99 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016)

The case of Brian Michael Slattery delves into the intricacies of probable cause in traffic stops, focusing on the interpretation of signaling requirements under Pennsylvania's Vehicle Code. This article explores the background of the case, the decision of the lower court, and provides an in-depth analysis of the Superior Court's reasoning and decision.

Background of the Case

On September 26, 2014, Trooper Shawn Panchik of the Pennsylvania State Police observed Brian Michael Slattery driving his Dodge Durango on Route 30 in York County. The trooper noted a large nontransparent sticker on the rear window of the Durango. As the vehicle transitioned from the right lane to a left turn-only lane, the trooper followed and observed the Durango turning left onto Industrial Road. After the turn, Trooper Panchik initiated a traffic stop, during which Slattery exhibited signs of impairment and admitted to having smoked marijuana and having a suspended license. He was arrested for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of a Controlled Substance (Impaired Ability).

Lower Court's Decision

Slattery filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence, arguing that the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop his vehicle. The court denied the motion after a hearing where Trooper Panchik was the sole witness. Following a bench trial before Judge Richard K. Renn, Slattery was convicted of driving while operating privilege is suspended/revoked and failing to signal, and acquitted of the DUI charge. He was sentenced to 50 days of incarceration and fined $1,025.00.

car is being pulled over by a police vehicle

Superior Court's Reasoning and Decision

On appeal, Slattery challenged the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress, contending that his actions did not violate section 3334(a) of the Vehicle Code, which requires a driver to signal before changing lanes or turning. He argued that the "100-foot rule" specified in section 3334(b) for signaling before turning does not apply to lane changes.

The Superior Court agreed with Slattery, noting that probable cause for a vehicular stop requires the officer to articulate specific facts that would indicate a violation of the Vehicle Code. The court found that Trooper Panchik's belief that Slattery needed to signal at least 100 feet before changing lanes was incorrect, as section 3334(b) clearly applies only to turning, not lane changes. The court also dismissed the trooper's suspicion regarding the nontransparent sticker on the rear window, as there was no evidence that it materially impaired the driver's view, a requirement for a violation of section 4524.

 car activates its back left turn signal

The Superior Court concluded that the trooper did not have probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to believe that Slattery had violated sections 4524 or 3334 of the Vehicle Code. Therefore, the stop of Slattery's Durango was deemed unlawful, and any evidence obtained as a result should have been suppressed. The court reversed the judgment of sentence and remanded the case for a new trial, emphasizing the importance of adhering to the clear language of the Vehicle Code in determining the legality of a traffic stop.