Com. v. Strickler

Decision Date24 August 2000
Citation757 A.2d 884,563 Pa. 47
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Brett Eugene STRICKLER, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Arla M. Waller, Public Defender's Office, for Brett Eugene Strickler.

Jaime Keating, Dist. Atty.'s Office, for Com.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN and SAYLOR, JJ.

OPINION

SAYLOR, Justice.

The issue presented is whether, pursuant to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, evidence seized from a vehicle during the course of a consent search was properly suppressed.

On May 26, 1995, at approximately 12:40 a.m., a uniformed officer of the Upper Allen Township Police Department was on routine patrol in a marked vehicle, traveling on Fisher Road in a rural area, when he saw a car parked at the side of the road, alongside the lawn in front of a farmhouse and barn. Standing about fifteen feet from the parked car were two men who appeared to be urinating. The officer pulled in behind the parked car with the intent, as he explained at the suppression hearing, to ascertain what was happening and whether anything was wrong. He stepped out of his vehicle and approached the individuals, noticing, as he passed their car, that it contained a cooler containing unopened beer cans. When the officer asked the men what they were doing, they replied that they were coming from the races at the Williams Grove Speedway and had stopped to urinate. The officer asked to see their driver's licenses, which they produced, and returned to his vehicle to check on the validity of the licenses and to determine whether there were outstanding warrants for either of the men. As he was conducting the license check, a fellow officer arrived and parked his vehicle behind the patrol car. After verifying that the licenses were valid and that there were no warrants for either of the two men, the officer stepped back out of his cruiser; called defendant/appellant Brett Strickler (the owner and operator of the parked car) over to him; returned Strickler's driver's license to him; advised him that it was not appropriate to stop along the road and urinate on someone else's property; thanked him for his cooperation; and began walking toward his cruiser. At that point, he later testified, Strickler was free to go, although there is no evidence that he informed Strickler of that fact.

After taking a few steps toward his car, the officer turned around and asked Strickler if he had anything illegal in his car. When Strickler answered that he did not, the officer then asked him "if he wouldn't mind if I took a look through his car." As the officer testified at the suppression hearing, he had no reason to suspect Strickler of having any form of contraband in the car. Nevertheless, his reason for requesting Strickler's consent to search was "[t]o see if there was anything illegal in his car." In response to the request,

[Strickler] hesitated. He stood there and looked at me and looked at [the officer] who assisted me at the scene, and I explained to him, you know, he didn't have to say yes, you know, and then I asked him again. After saying that, I said, Do you mind. Is it okay with you if we just take a quick search of your vehicle[?]

At that point, Strickler consented to a search. Upon searching the car, the officer found, between the console and the front passenger seat, an object that looked and smelled like a marijuana smoking pipe. Strickler was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(32).

Strickler filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the marijuana pipe on the grounds that the arresting officer, having had no reasonable belief that a crime had occurred or was occurring, had impermissibly requested his consent to a search, and, in addition, that any search for drug paraphernalia was outside the scope of the consent that he gave. The suppression court conducted a hearing, at which the Commonwealth elicited the testimony of the arresting officer, and Strickler presented no witnesses or other evidence. At hearing, the court expressed reservations about relying upon any admonition by the officer concerning the voluntariness of the consent. N.T., Nov. 2, 1995, at 18 (stating that "[w]hen an officer asks somebody, you know, to do something, they don't—I don't expect the Defendant to be familiar with Constitutional law or something[;] [u]sually when an officer asks you something, this idea that well, he didn't have to, that's really meaningless to a large extent"). The court subsequently granted the suppression remedy, finding the case analogous to Commonwealth v. Lopez, 415 Pa.Super. 252, 609 A.2d 177 (1992), in which the Superior Court deemed the consent to a vehicle search involuntary and directed that the fruits of the search be suppressed. The suppression court determined that the officer's initial detention of Strickler and his companion to ascertain what they were doing had been proper, but the subsequent request to search the car, coming as it did after the purpose of such detention had been accomplished, was illegal as it was not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The court concluded that such illegality tainted Strickler's subsequent consent.

On appeal, the Superior Court concluded, on the basis of its decision in Commonwealth v. Hoak, 700 A.2d 1263 (Pa.Super. 1997) (en banc), aff'd by an equally divided court,557 Pa. 496, 734 A.2d 1275 (1999), that the trial court had erred in granting Strickler's suppression motion. Acknowledging that the Upper Allen Township police officer had not informed Strickler that he was free to go, the Superior Court reasoned that the officer's actions preceding the request for consent to search had nevertheless clearly communicated to Strickler that the traffic stop, and therefore Strickler's detention, had ended. The Superior Court's assessment entailed a broader evaluation of the relevant circumstances, proceeding as follows:

[F]ollowing the conclusion of the initial stop, the officer began to walk back to his car, but then turned and asked [Strickler] if he had anything illegal in his car and if he would consent to a search. Although [Strickler] initially hesitated, when the officer explained that he did not have to consent, [Strickler] agreed to the search. As the Hoak court determined, absent some coercive conduct, we find this questioning of [Strickler] did not automatically transform the non-coercive encounter into an unlawful seizure or detention. Importantly,... the record shows that there were only two officers at the scene. Also, [the arresting officer] testified that when he asked [Strickler] for permission to search his car, he neither threatened [Strickler] in any way nor raised his voice. [The officer] further stated that he did not take out his gun or show any sign of force, nor did [the other officer] do so. Moreover, there is no evidence that the officers physically touched or came into contact with [Strickler].

Under such circumstances, the court stated that the trial court's determinations that Strickler was subject to an unlawful detention and that his consent was involuntary were unjustified. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the suppression order and remanded the case for further proceedings. This Court allowed appeal to address the merits of the trial and appellate courts' conflicting approaches to a consent search following an investigative detention.1

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, including those entailing only a brief detention. See United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 551, 100 S.Ct. 1870, 1875, 64 L.Ed.2d 497 (1980)(opinion announcing the judgment of the Court).2 A search conducted without a warrant is deemed to be unreasonable and therefore constitutionally impermissible, unless an established exception applies. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 2043, 36 L.Ed.2d 854 (1973). One such exception is consent, voluntarily given. See id. at 219, 93 S.Ct. at 2043-44. The central Fourth Amendment inquiries in consent cases entail assessment of the constitutional validity of the citizen/police encounter giving rise to the consent; and, ultimately, the voluntariness of consent. See id.; see also Commonwealth v. Cleckley, 558 Pa. 517, 528, 738 A.2d 427, 433 (1999).3 Where the underlying encounter is found to be lawful, voluntariness becomes the exclusive focus. Where, however, a consensual search has been preceded by an unlawful seizure, the exclusionary rule requires suppression of the evidence obtained absent a demonstration by the government both of a sufficient break in the causal chain between the illegality and the seizure of evidence, thus assuring that the search is not an exploitation of the prior illegality, and of voluntariness. See Royer, 460 U.S. at 497, 501, 103 S.Ct. at 1323, 1326.4

Accordingly, in assessing the lawfulness of citizen/police encounters, a central, threshold issue is whether or not the citizen-subject has been seized. Instances of police questioning involving no seizure or detentive aspect (mere or consensual encounters) need not be supported by any level of suspicion in order to maintain validity.5 Valid citizen/police interactions which constitute seizures generally fall within two categories, distinguished according to the degree of restraint upon a citizen's liberty: the investigative detention or Terry stop, which subjects an individual to a stop and a period of detention but is not so coercive as to constitute the functional equivalent of an arrest; and a custodial detention or arrest, the more restrictive form of permissible encounters. See Ellis, 541 Pa. at 294, 662 A.2d at 1047. To maintain constitutional validity, an investigative detention must be supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person seized is engaged in criminal activity and may continue only so...

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