Com. v. Mistler

Citation912 A.2d 1265
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Douglas MISTLER, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Joanna Oliver, Appellee. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Patrick Luddy, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Stacey Gillespie, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Kali Warren, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Paul Mudd, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Hillary Kozak, Appellee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Elise Sterbinsky, Appellee.
Decision Date27 December 2006
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., Phillip Alan Simon, Esq., West Chester, for Douglas Mistler.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Joanna Oliver.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Patrick Luddy.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Stacey Gillespie.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Kali Warren.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Paul Mudd.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Hillary Kozak.

Dawson R. Muth, Esq., West Chester, for Elise Sterbinsky.

BEFORE: CAPPY, C.J., and CASTILLE, NEWMAN, SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER and BALDWIN, JJ.

OPINION

Justice NEWMAN.

Today we are asked by the Chester County District Attorney's Office ("the Commonwealth") to review the propriety of the determinations of the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County ("suppression court") and the Superior Court, both of which held that all evidence obtained as a result of the detentions in question is inadmissible. For the reasons set forth infra, we hold that the suppression of the evidence was proper. Accordingly, we affirm, albeit on different grounds, the Order of the Superior Court.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

We recite the facts as stated by the suppression court:

On April 3, 2003, following an undercover operation, Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Enforcement Officers ([] "LCE [officers]") and the West Chester Police ( []"WCP") issued under-age drinking citations to a group of students who were attending a party at Sigma Pi fraternity. On this night, Sigma Pi fraternity . . . opened their fraternity house to the public for a party by selling tickets for admission. The tickets were required to be presented before a person could gain entry to the party, and allowed students to purchase alcoholic beverages once inside the fraternity house. The undercover LCE officers, who were dressed in plain clothing, obtained their tickets from the West Chester Police Department a few days before the party. The Department had obtained them from a student. The LCE officers were able to enter the party with relative ease. Upon entry, the LCE officers presented their tickets to a person seated behind a table who then checked the tickets against a list. The person seated behind the desk then marked the officers' hands, and allowed them to enter the party. The LCE officers then made their way to the basement of the fraternity house where they observed a makeshift bar where people who appeared to be students were being served and were consuming alcoholic beverages. From their observations, the LCE officers generally gathered that many of the students, who seemed youthful in appearance, were under the age of 21. The LCE officers had not procured a search warrant before entering the fraternity house.

As the crowd in the basement began to multiply, the LCE officers believed it was necessary, for safety purposes, to call in the detail of the WCP. The WCP were uniformed police officers, and they did not procure a search warrant before entering the fraternity house. When the WCP arrived, the LCE officers stopped the party and began to "card" each student by checking their drivers' licenses for identification. Based on their ages, LCE officers divided the students into two groups: those that were over the age of 21, and those that were under the age of 21. Those who were over the age of 21 were told that they were free to leave, and the under 21s were further detained. Upon detention of the students under the age of 21, the WCP and the LCE officers administered PBTs,[1] and began to question students concerning whether or not they had been drinking. Based on the PBT information, students' admissions that they had been drinking, and LCE officers' observations, LCE officers issued underage drinking citations to 56 students.

Commonwealth v. Mistler, Nos. 3284 et al. M.D.2003, at 2-3 (C.P. Pa. Chester Feb. 6, 2004) (hereinafter "Feb. Supp. ct. Op.").

On July 11, 2003, District Justice Mark A. Bruno held an initial suppression hearing and conducted summary trials, subsequently finding all of the defendants guilty of underage drinking. Feb. Supp. ct. Op. at 3. The twenty-four students then filed Summary Appeals to the suppression court. After granting a Motion to Consolidate, the suppression court held a suppression hearing on October 22, 2003, id., and issued an Opinion on February 6, 2004, holding, inter alia, that on the record presented, further evidence of a "particularized connection" between the crime charged and the people detained was required, id. at 11. Because of this conclusion, the suppression court granted the Motion to Suppress. (Reproduced Record ("R.R.") at 259a).

The Commonwealth appealed the grant of suppression. In a published opinion, the Superior Court affirmed the suppression court, Commonwealth v. Mistler, 869 A.2d 497 (Pa.Super.2005), and subsequently denied a request of the Commonwealth for reargument en banc. The Commonwealth then sought Allowance of Appeal to this Court, which we granted by Order dated December 28, 2005.

DISCUSSION

When reviewing the propriety of a suppression order, an appellate court is required to determine whether the record supports the suppression court's factual findings and whether the inferences and legal conclusions drawn by the suppression court from those findings are appropriate. Commonwealth v. Davis, 491 Pa. 363, 421 A.2d 179 (1980). Because the students prevailed in the suppression court, we may consider only the evidence of the defense and so much of the evidence for the Commonwealth as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole. Where the record supports the factual findings of the suppression court, we are bound by those facts and may reverse only if the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are in error. Commonwealth v. Bomar, 573 Pa. 426, 826 A.2d 831, 842 (2003) (citations omitted). However, where the appeal of the determination of the suppression court turns on allegations of legal error, "[t]he suppression court's conclusions of law . . . are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty it is to determine if the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts." Commonwealth v. Nester, 551 Pa. 157, 709 A.2d 879, 881 (1998). As a result, the conclusions of law of the suppression and Superior courts are subject to plenary review. Commonwealth v. Morley, 545 Pa. 420, 681 A.2d 1254 (1996).

In granting suppression, both the suppression court and the Superior Court relied extensively on the Superior Court's prior decision in Commonwealth v. Wood, 833 A.2d 740 (Pa.Super.2003), aff'd, 580 Pa. 561, 862 A.2d 589 (2004). In Wood:

Pennsylvania State Trooper Taylor was assigned as a liquor enforcement officer and had been in that assignment for approximately a year and a half at the time of the incident . . . . On February 27, 2001, Trooper Taylor, along with other officers, was working an assigned detail for the Mardi Gras celebration on South Street in Philadelphia. The officers were on South Street as a result of their sergeant having received reports from the Philadelphia Police Department Vice Unit that there was a good chance [the officers] would be finding a lot of underage drinking because it's a well-known party on South Street during Mardi Gras. Along with several other officers from the State Liquor Control Department, Trooper Taylor entered the "Name That Bar" on South Street.

Id. at 743. Once inside the bar, Trooper Taylor and the other officers, relying on their "experience," and based solely on whether a bar patron "looked to be under the age of 21," asked the bar patrons for identification, a process known as carding. Id. After finding several underage patrons, the officers separated all those under twenty-one years of age in a different area of the bar, and those individuals were not free to leave that area. Id. at 743-44. Any patron over the age of twenty-one was ordered to leave the bar. Id. at 744. Trooper Taylor testified that the officers first would determine a particular patron's age and next would ascertain whether or not they had been drinking alcohol. Id.

Once the officers identified Colleen Wood ("Wood") as being seventeen years old, and only after she was segregated along with the other patrons who were "youthful in appearance," Trooper Taylor overheard Wood declare that although she had not been drinking in that bar, she had been drinking that evening. Id. It was based upon this declaration alone that Wood was "set aside" to "get in line and be cited for underage drinking." Id. Trooper Taylor offered no testimony that she or anybody else had observed Wood purchasing, attempting to purchase, consuming, or possessing any alcoholic beverages in the "Name That Bar." Id. Wood's confession of prior consumption of alcohol arose only after she had been detained for investigation, without any observed suspicious or criminal conduct on her part and her detention was based solely on her appearance. Id.

In that case, the Superior Court concluded that the police lacked a reasonable suspicion to detain Wood. It noted that the police "did not observe [Wood] drinking alcoholic...

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