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Court weighs in on police conduct in roadside encounter

We suspect that many readers of our criminal defense blog across Tennessee would quickly view as flawed the outcome of a police-citizen roadside encounter that occurred in another state.

For those who do, we duly point out that their view was seconded in a ruling recently issued by justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The court looked at the material facts concerning a state trooper's interaction with a motorist already stopped in her car on the side of a road. The tribunal found the officer's subsequent conduct to be in violation of constitutional requirements checking police action.

That driver had pulled over to enter a street address on her GPS system. When the officer pulled beside her and asked if she needed help, she assured him she did not.

In the court's opinion, that should have terminated the interaction between the officer and driver. The former had no rational basis at that point to legally effect a traffic stop and interrogate the motorist based on any reasonable suspicion that she had engaged -- or was still engaging in -- unlawful behavior.

The officer began intensively questioning the motorist, though, and eventually arrested her for drunk driving.

Prosecutors in the case argued that the driver's responses were voluntary and that she was not in police custody when giving them.

The court rejected that argument, stating that the circumstances surrounding her interaction with the officer -- the police car's flashing lights and the trooper's persistent questioning -- would persuade any reasonable person that he or she was "not free to leave."

The car simply being on the side of the road did not provide the officer with any "specific, objective and articulable facts" allowing for further questioning and, ultimately, an arrest, held the court. The justices ruled that the driver had been subjected to an unlawful detention.

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