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Superior Court Upholds Vehicle Search and Conviction in Commonwealth v. Brown - May 22, 2013

Town Law Publishing July 7, 2024

traffic stop scene where a police officer is searching a vehicleCommonwealth v. Brown, 64 A.3d 1101, 2013 Pa. Super. 60 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013)

In a 2013 ruling, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the judgment of sentence against William O. Brown, who was convicted of possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. The case primarily revolved around the constitutionality of a vehicle search conducted following a traffic stop.

Case Background

On the night of September 17, 2010, Corporal Dowlin of the Pennsylvania State Police observed a Ford pickup truck, driven by William O. Brown, making a left turn without signaling. Upon stopping the vehicle, Corporal Dowlin noticed suspicious movements by the passenger, leading him to believe that the passenger might be concealing a firearm. This belief prompted Corporal Dowlin to draw his weapon and call for backup. During the search that followed, the officers discovered marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the vehicle.

Brown was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession with intent to deliver (PWID). After his pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence was denied, Brown was found guilty on the possession charges but acquitted on the PWID charge. He was sentenced to 30 days to 23.5 months of incarceration.

Appellant's Arguments

Brown appealed, raising two primary issues:

  1. The suppression court erred in finding that the police had reasonable suspicion or probable cause to conduct the traffic stop.

  2. The suppression court erred in concluding that the passenger’s movements justified a weapons search of the vehicle.

Superior Court's Analysis

Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause for Traffic Stop

In his appeal, William O. Brown challenged the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the traffic stop, arguing that Corporal Dowlin lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop his vehicle. To address this challenge, it's essential to understand the legal standards for initiating a traffic stop and how they applied in this case.

traffic stop scene where a police officer is searching a vehicleLegal Standards

Under Pennsylvania law, a police officer has the authority to stop a vehicle when he or she has reasonable suspicion that a violation of the Vehicle Code has taken place. This standard is outlined in 75 Pa.C.S. § 6308(b), which allows for stops based on reasonable suspicion for the purpose of obtaining necessary information to enforce the provisions of the code. However, if the violation is such that it requires no additional investigation to confirm, the officer must have probable cause to initiate the stop.

In simpler terms, reasonable suspicion is sufficient for traffic stops where the officer needs to investigate further to determine whether a violation has occurred. Conversely, if the officer directly observes a clear violation that does not necessitate further inquiry, probable cause is required.

Application to Brown’s Case

Corporal Dowlin testified that he stopped Brown for failing to use a turn signal when making a left turn from Richhill Street to Greene Street. This action constituted a violation of 75 Pa.C.S. § 3334, which mandates the use of turn signals during such maneuvers. Since determining whether Brown used his turn signal did not require further investigation beyond the initial observation, Corporal Dowlin needed probable cause to justify the stop.

Analysis of Probable Cause

Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed. This standard is assessed under a totality of the circumstances approach, considering all relevant facts.

In this case, Corporal Dowlin directly observed Brown's failure to signal the left turn. This observation alone provided the factual basis necessary to establish probable cause. Therefore, the trial court's application of the reasonable suspicion standard was incorrect. However, because the facts supported a finding of probable cause, the stop was still legally justified, and the suppression motion was properly denied.

traffic stop scene where a police officer is searching a vehicleConstitutionality of the Vehicle Search

Brown also challenged the legality of the vehicle search, arguing that the passenger’s movements did not justify a weapons search. The Superior Court held that, based on Corporal Dowlin’s training and experience, the passenger’s movements were sufficient to create a reasonable belief that she might be concealing a weapon. The court emphasized that police officers are entitled to take protective measures during traffic stops, especially at night and when they have limited visibility.

Moreover, the court noted that Brown failed to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle, which was owned by a third party. The appellant did not provide evidence showing he had permission to operate the vehicle, thereby undermining his standing to challenge the search.


The Superior Court affirmed the denial of Brown's motion to suppress and upheld his judgment of sentence. The ruling underscores the court's commitment to balancing public safety with individual rights, particularly in the context of roadside encounters involving potential weapons.