663 A.2d 728 (Pa.Super. 1995), Commonwealth v. Henderson

Citation:663 A.2d 728, 444 Pa.Super. 170
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kelly
Party Name:COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Andrew HENDERSON, Appellee. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Robert KENNEDY, Appellee. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Andre LONDON, Appellee.
Attorney:Stuart B. Suss, Assistant District Attorney, West Chester, for Commonwealth, appellant.
Case Date:August 10, 1995
Court:Superior Court of Pennsylvania
 
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Page 728

663 A.2d 728 (Pa.Super. 1995)

444 Pa.Super. 170

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,

v.

Andrew HENDERSON, Appellee.

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,

v.

Robert KENNEDY, Appellee.

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,

v.

Andre LONDON, Appellee.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

August 10, 1995

Argued May 10, 1995.

Page 729

[444 Pa.Super. 172] Stuart B. Suss, Assistant District Attorney, West Chester, for Commonwealth, appellant.

Jenny Steinen, Assistant Public Defender, West Chester, for appellees.

Before ROWLEY, President Judge, and WIEAND, McEWEN, CIRILLO, DEL SOLE, KELLY, POPOVICH, FORD ELLIOTT, and SAYLOR, JJ.

KELLY, Judge:

In this appeal we must determine whether the police may stop motor vehicles solely because their drivers and/or front-seat passengers over the age of four are not using seat belts. [444 Pa.Super. 173] After careful consideration, we hold that the police lack the authority to stop motor vehicles under such circumstances. Thus, we affirm the suppression court's February 1, 1994 order which suppressed all evidence accumulated against appellees, Andrew Henderson, Robert Kennedy, and Andre London, pursuant to East Fallowfield Township Police Chief Peter John Mango's stop of the Ford LTD occupied by appellees.

The relevant facts and procedural history of this case are as follows. At approximately 9:22 p.m. on February 8, 1993, Chief Mango's patrol car was parked off to the side of West Chester Road. Chief Mango's patrol car was parked perpendicular to the roadway and its headlights were activated. The brown, four-door Ford LTD sedan occupied by appellees then drove through Chief Mango's illuminated field of vision in an eastbound direction. At this point, Chief Mango noticed that the driver of the Ford LTD was not using his seat belt. Immediately, Chief Mango entered the eastbound lane of West Chester Road and proceeded to follow the Ford LTD. After approximately one-quarter mile of pursuit, Chief Mango noticed that the front-seat passenger of the Ford LTD was also not using his seat belt and Chief Mango stopped the vehicle.

When Chief Mango walked near the Ford LTD, he asked its driver, appellee-Kennedy,

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for his license, registration, and insurance card. Appellee-Kennedy told Chief Mango that he had no license or other identification with him. During this conversation, Chief Mango detected a strong odor of burning marijuana emanating from the Ford LTD. Consequently, Chief Mango asked the Ford LTD's occupants who was smoking the marijuana. Appellee-Kennedy responded by telling Chief Mango that everyone inside the Ford LTD was smoking marijuana. At this point, Chief Mango arrested all of the occupants of the Ford LTD and requested the assistance of two other police officers.

When the additional police officers arrived to assist Chief Mango, all three appellees were searched at the site of their arrest. A pager and eight hundred, seventy-two dollars were found on appellee-Kennedy's person. The search of appellee-Henderson's person revealed a pager, seventy-one dollars and [444 Pa.Super. 174] six .357 magnum rounds of ammunition inside a plastic bag. A pager, six hundred, fifty-two dollars and two plastic bags containing marijuana were found on appellee-London's person. Finally, before leaving the site of appellees' arrest, a search of the Ford LTD was conducted. This search revealed the butt of a marijuana cigarette, a package of cigarette rolling papers, a plastic bag containing cocaine residue, and another plastic bag containing marijuana.

Appellees were then transported to the police station where it was discovered that appellee-Kennedy had an outstanding bench warrant for violating his parole or probation, and appellee-London had outstanding summary traffic warrants. Additionally, more extensive searches of appellees' persons were conducted at the police station. During these searches, thirty-one foil wrapped bags of cocaine were found inside appellee-Henderson's underwear.

All three appellees were charged with possession of a controlled substance, 1 possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, 2 possession of a small amount of marijuana, 3 and criminal conspiracy. 4 None of appellees were charged with violating any of the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Code. 5 More specifically, none of appellees were charged with violating any of the provisions of the seat belt laws contained within the Motor Vehicle Code. 6

Appellee-Henderson and appellee-London each filed pretrial suppression motions. A suppression hearing on these motions was held on September 14, 1993, at which time the suppression court orally granted them. Subsequently, by order dated October 13, 1993, the suppression court vacated its September 14, 1993 suppression order and then held another suppression hearing in this matter on October 14, [444 Pa.Super. 175] 1993. At this second suppression hearing, the suppression court permitted appellee-Kennedy to join appellee-Henderson's suppression motion. Also, Chief Mango testified regarding the events that transpired on the evening of February 8, 1993 in order to establish a complete record for appeal.

By order dated February 1, 1994, the suppression court suppressed all statements and physical evidence associated with this case. In the opinion that the suppression court filed with this order, the Honorable Thomas G. Gavin opined that "the legislative intent in enacting 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581 was not to provide the police with an additional probable cause ground to make vehicular stops." Suppression Court Opinion at 3. Thus, the suppression court concluded that Chief Mango's stop of the Ford LTD was illegal. Id. at 5. Consequently, on February 16, 1994, the Commonwealth filed its notice of appeal. On March 2, 1994, the suppression court filed three opinions inviting this Court to examine its February 1, 1994 opinion for the reasoning behind its suppression order.

The Commonwealth raises the following issue for our review:

1. MAY A POLICE OFFICER WHO OBSERVES A SEAT BELT VIOLATION

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IN A PASSING VEHICLE STOP THAT VEHICLE TO WARN THE DRIVER AND OCCUPANTS OF THE VISIBLE SAFETY VIOLATION?

Commonwealth's Brief at 3.

Preliminarily, we note that this Court's standard of review in this case is as follows:

When reviewing the Commonwealth's appeal from an adverse decision of the suppression court, we must consider "only the evidence of the defendant's witnesses and so much of the evidence for the prosecution as read in the context of the record as a whole remains uncontradicted." Commonwealth v. Smith, 396 Pa.Super. 6, 8, 577 A.2d 1387, 1388 (1990). When the evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact, we may reverse only when the legal conclusions drawn from these facts are erroneous. Id.

[444 Pa.Super. 176] Commonwealth v. Quiles, 422 Pa.Super. 153, 156, 619 A.2d 291, 292 (1993) (en banc ).

With this standard of review in mind, we will address the Commonwealth's challenges to the suppression court's February 1, 1994 suppression order. The Commonwealth contends that a police officer may stop a motor vehicle whenever the officer observes any of its front-seat occupants failing to use their seat belts. Specifically, the Commonwealth avers that the General Assembly intended to vest the police with the authority to stop a motor vehicle in order to issue oral hazard warnings if its front-seat occupants are not using seat belts. According to the Commonwealth, the authority of the police to stop motor vehicles whose front-seat occupants are not using seat belts in order to issue oral hazard warnings is derived from the police's power under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308(b) to enforce violations of the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Code. Finally, the Commonwealth contends that evidence gathered by a police officer when that officer stops a motor vehicle whose occupants are not using seat belts may be admissible in any criminal proceedings against the occupants.

A police officer is authorized to stop a motor vehicle to check the driver's license, the vehicle's registration, the vehicle's identification number, the vehicle's engine number, and proof of financial responsibility whenever that officer possesses articulable and reasonable grounds to suspect that the Motor Vehicle Code is being violated. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308(b). See Commonwealth v. McElroy, 428 Pa.Super. 69, 630 A.2d 35 (1993) (en banc ) (police officer's opinion that motor vehicle was traveling forty-five miles per hour over posted speed limit constitutes articulable and reasonable grounds to stop motor vehicle). Although a motor vehicle's driver and its front-seat passengers over the age of four are required to fasten their seat belts and the driver of a motor vehicle is responsible for securing the seat belts of front-seat passengers between the ages of four and eighteen, a conviction resulting from the failure of a person over the age of four to fasten his or her seat belt will "occur only as a secondary action when a driver of a motor vehicle has been convicted of any other provision of [444 Pa.Super. 177] [the Motor Vehicle Code]." 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581(a)(2). 7 Moreover, a motor vehicle

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driver or front-seat passenger over the age of eighteen cannot be convicted of a seat belt infraction and be sentenced to pay the ten dollar fine associated with such a conviction unless the driver is also convicted of simultaneously violating another Motor Vehicle Code provision. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581(b). 8 Thus, the seat belt laws mandate the [444 Pa.Super. 178] use of seat belts by all front-seat occupants of motor vehicles, yet expressly prohibit anyone's punishment for the non-use of seat belts unless a violation of another of the Motor Vehicle Code's provisions...

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