In re Interest of T.W., 22 EAP 2020

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE MUNDY
Citation261 A.3d 409
Parties In the INTEREST OF: T.W., a Minor Appeal of: T.W.
Docket NumberNo. 22 EAP 2020,22 EAP 2020
Decision Date20 October 2021

261 A.3d 409

In the INTEREST OF: T.W., a Minor

Appeal of: T.W.

No. 22 EAP 2020

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued: March 9, 2021
Decided: October 20, 2021


Victor Edward Rauch, Aaron Joshua Marcus, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for Appellant T.W.

Lawrence Jonathan Goode, Daniel Peter Casullo, III, Anthony V. Pomeranz, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Philadelphia, for Appellee Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

David Rudovsky, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, LLP, Philadelphia, Peter E. Kratsa, West Chester, for Appellant Amicus Curiae PACDL.

Lisa Ann Swift, Lackawanna County District Attorney's Office, Scranton, Michael F. J. Piecuch, Snyder County District Attorney's Office, Middleburg, for Appellee Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

BAER, C.J., SAYLOR, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

OPINION

JUSTICE MUNDY

261 A.3d 413

In this appeal by allowance, Appellant, T.W., a minor, appeals from the February 4, 2020 order of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which affirmed the July 10, 2018 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County denying a motion made by Appellant to suppress physical evidence and adjudicating Appellant delinquent for unlawful possession of a controlled substance. As will be discussed more fully below, Appellant's arrest for unlawful possession of a controlled substance arose from a vehicle stop and a subsequent Terry1 frisk. Upon frisking Appellant, a police officer of the Philadelphia Police Department felt a hard object in Appellant's left pants pocket. Fearing that the unknown object could be a weapon, the officer reached into Appellant's pocket and removed the object. Appellant was arrested for possessing the object and a subsequent search incident to arrest led to the discovery of a controlled substance on Appellant's person. Before trial, Appellant made a motion to suppress the physical evidence recovered from his person, arguing that the police officer exceeded the scope of a permissible Terry frisk by reaching into Appellant's pocket and removing an object during the frisk.

We granted review in this matter to address the standards by which a police officer may remove an object from within a suspect's clothing during a Terry frisk. We previously addressed this issue in Commonwealth v. Taylor , 565 Pa. 140, 771 A.2d 1261 (2001) (plurality). Our review in that case resulted in a plurality decision whereby the opinion announcing the judgment of the Court held that a police officer conducting a lawful Terry frisk may remove an object from within a suspect's clothing if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the object is a weapon. Id. at 1269. In light of the fact that Taylor did not produce a majority opinion, we reexamine the issue anew.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The salient facts of this case are not in dispute. During the early morning hours of June 19, 2015, Officers Grant and Heeney of the Philadelphia Police Department observed

261 A.3d 414

two vehicles making illegal u-turns. The officers pursued both vehicles, which were ignoring multiple traffic signals and traveling through the streets of Philadelphia at a high rate of speed. One of the vehicles eventually crashed, and the two individuals occupying the vehicle fled on foot. The officers, also on foot, pursued the two individuals but lost them during the chase. While pursuing the two fleeing individuals, the officers observed the second car they had been pursuing. The officers, still on foot, initiated a stop of that vehicle.

There were three individuals occupying the second vehicle: a driver, a front passenger, and Appellant, who was sitting in the rear. The officers asked all three individuals for identification, but Appellant was not able to produce identification. At that point, Officer Grant observed Appellant attempt to shield his body from the officers’ view and reach into his pockets. Officer Grant directed Appellant not to reach into his pockets and when Appellant did not comply with this direction, Officer Grant removed Appellant from the vehicle and conducted an open handed pat down of Appellant's outer clothing.

During the frisk, Officer Grant felt a hard object in Appellant's left pants pocket. Officer Grant was not able to identify the object by touch, but feared that the object could be a weapon. Based on his experience as a police officer, Officer Grant knew the area in which the vehicle was stopped to be a high-crime area. Additionally, Officer Grant had personal experience with recovering weapons during traffic stops in that area. Officer Grant reached into Appellant's pants pocket and removed the object, which was a glass prescription medication bottle labeled "promethazine." The medication was prescribed to an individual other than Appellant. Officer Grant then placed Appellant under arrest and conducted a search incident to arrest. During the search, Officer Grant discovered a second pill bottle in Appellant's right pants pocket. The bottle contained two pills, which were identified as oxycodone. Thereafter, Appellant was charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance for possessing the two oxycodone pills.2

Appellant's case proceeded to a juvenile adjudication hearing, where Appellant made a motion to suppress the physical evidence recovered from his person by Officer Grant. Before the trial court, Appellant conceded that his removal from the vehicle and the subsequent frisk by Officer Grant were lawful. However, Appellant argued, in relevant part, that Officer Grant exceeded the scope of a permissible frisk by reaching into Appellant's left pants pocket and removing an object during the frisk.

Officer Grant was the sole witness to testify at the suppression hearing. He testified as to the facts summarized above. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court denied Appellant's motion to suppress physical evidence. The court then immediately moved into the trial phase of the proceeding. Based upon the record created during the hearing on Appellant's motion to suppress physical evidence, as well as additional exhibits entered by the Commonwealth during the trial phase, the trial court adjudicated Appellant delinquent for the unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Following his adjudication of delinquency, Appellant filed a notice of appeal. The

261 A.3d 415

trial court ordered Appellant to file a statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(b), Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). Therein, Appellant's sole complaint was that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress physical evidence. Appellant again argued that Officer Grant exceeded the scope of a permissible frisk by reaching into Appellant's pants pocket and removing an object during the frisk.

In support of its July 10, 2018 order adjudicating Appellant delinquent, the trial court issued an opinion pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(a). After examining Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), the trial court applied a reasonable suspicion standard to determine whether Officer Grant's belief that the object in Appellant's left pants pocket was a weapon was reasonable so as to justify him reaching into and removing the object from Appellant's pocket during the frisk. Examining the record created during the suppression hearing, the trial court concluded, based upon the totality of the circumstances, Officer Grant had a reasonable suspicion that the object in Appellant's left pants pocket was a weapon. The trial court based this conclusion on the following facts: Appellant was a passenger in a vehicle that was involved in a chase with police in a high crime area; Officer Grant had personal experience recovering weapons from traffic stops in the area in which the vehicle was stopped; Officers Grant and Heeney made the stop and on foot and without the benefit and protection of a police vehicle; Appellant attempted to hide his body from the officers’ view during the vehicle stop while reaching into his pockets; and Appellant did not comply with Officer Grant's direction for Appellant to stop reaching into his pockets. Trial Court Opinion at 4-5. As such, the trial court concluded Officer Grant did not exceed the scope of a permissible Terry frisk.

The appeal proceeded to the Superior Court, which affirmed. In re T.W. , No. 2390 EDA 2018, 2020 WL 551354 (Pa. Super. Feb. 4, 2020). Before the Superior Court, Appellant again conceded that his removal from the vehicle and the subsequent frisk by Officer Grant were lawful. Id. at *3. However, Appellant maintained that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress physical evidence because Officer Grant exceeded the scope of a permissible frisk by reaching into his left pants pocket and removing an object during the frisk. The Superior Court rejected this argument. Citing Taylor , the Superior Court, like the trial court, applied a reasonable suspicion standard to determine whether Officer Grant was justified in reaching into Appellant's left pants pocket during the frisk. Id. at *4.

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2 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Bradley, 37 EAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 20, 2021
    ...variation of this scenario in Commonwealth v. Clark , 75 MAL 2021, 2021 WL 2024835 (Pa. 2021) (per curiam ). There, following the Superior 261 A.3d 409 Court's denial of relief from the dismissal of Lamar Clark's PCRA petition, Clark's appointed PCRA appellate counsel sought review of that ......
  • Commonwealth v. Singletary, 2069 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 17, 2021
    ...suspicion, under these facts, that criminal activity was afoot, and that Singletary was involved.24 See In re T.W. , ––– Pa ––––, ––––, 261 A.3d 409, 424 n.5 (2021) ("We acknowledge a suspect's mere presence in a high crime area is not sufficient by itself to support reasonable suspicion. H......
2 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Bradley, 37 EAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 20, 2021
    ...variation of this scenario in Commonwealth v. Clark , 75 MAL 2021, 2021 WL 2024835 (Pa. 2021) (per curiam ). There, following the Superior 261 A.3d 409 Court's denial of relief from the dismissal of Lamar Clark's PCRA petition, Clark's appointed PCRA appellate counsel sought review of that ......
  • Commonwealth v. Singletary, 2069 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 17, 2021
    ...suspicion, under these facts, that criminal activity was afoot, and that Singletary was involved.24 See In re T.W. , ––– Pa ––––, ––––, 261 A.3d 409, 424 n.5 (2021) ("We acknowledge a suspect's mere presence in a high crime area is not sufficient by itself to support reasonable suspicion. H......

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