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Commonwealth v. John Au  2009 PA Super 231 (12/01/2009)

Topic: Suppression of Evidence – Mere Encounter vs. Investigative Detention

Summary: Where an officer approaches a vehicle to see if the occupants are in need of help, the mere encounter is transformed to an investigative detention when the officer persists in asking questions after he has received information showing the occupants are not in need of help.

Illustration: The defendant was in a vehicle in public parking lot hours after the establishment at which he was parked had closed. The officer claimed that he approached the vehicle to determine whether the occupants needed any help.  After approaching the vehicle, the officer asked the occupants what they were doing.  The occupants responded that they were just hanging out.  At that point, the officer asked for identification.  Judge Bender concluded that, while the approach and question about what the occupants were doing was a mere encounter, the incident became an investigative detention when the officer asked for identification.

Judge Bender aptly noted (emphasis added),

While a person in Appellee’s situation may have surmised that the officer initiated the encounter to merely check upon the vehicle and its occupants, the subsequent request for identification from all of the vehicle’s occupants would have signaled to any reasonable person that the officer was unsatisfied with the response that the occupants were just hanging out, and that the officer wanted to investigate further. Knowing that the officer sought to investigate further and that this was no longer a situation where the officer was just checking in to see if the occupants were in need of assistance, no reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the encounter.


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