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When is a police stop a stop versus a “mere encounter”?

| May 11, 2016 | Criminal Defense

It may seem like a play of words, but in the legal world there’s a big difference between a “stop” and an “encounter” with police. The highest court in Pennsylvania is taking a look at this distinction, which could have an impact throughout the country.

What is the case about?

In this case, a woman was pulled over on the side of the highway at just after nine in the evening. The woman had her emergency lights on but was not visibly seeking assistance. She was not waving for help or circling her vehicle trying to fix anything. She was simply sitting in her car on the side of the road with her hazard lights on.

A passing officer took notice of the vehicle and pulled over to see if the woman needed any assistance. She said she did not, but the officer became suspicious. Based on the suspicions developed during this brief conversation, he pulled his vehicle in front of the stopped vehicle and questioned the driver further. The driver stated she had not been drinking. According to the opinion, the officer noted that the driver had slurred speech and appeared confused. He conducted a field sobriety test and arrested the driver for driving under the influence of alcohol. She was found guilty of the charges.

What is the issue?

The driver is appealing the decision, arguing that the evidence gathered during the discussion with officer should be thrown out. Her argument centers on the definition of the discussion. If the discussion is legally defined as a stop, as she argues, the officer is required to follow proper protocol. Most notably, the officer must have reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop. The driver argues that simply stopping on the side of the road is not enough to meet this standard. As a result, the stop would be illegal and any evidence gathered during the stop inadmissible.

The officer’s counter argument is that the discussion was a mere encounter. He states that an officer would be expected to conduct a safety check on a vehicle stopped during the evening on the side of the highway. As such, reasonable suspicion to conduct the discussion would not be needed and the evidence gathered would stand.

What is the impact in New York?

Although holdings out of Pennsylvania are not binding in New York, they can provide some guidance to justices asking similar questions. As a result, it is beneficial to have an idea of what is going on in Pennsylvania and other states throughout the country.