Landmark Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling
Important Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling
In Commonwealth vs. Livingstone, the driver of a vehicle was subjected to an investigatory detention without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. A State Trooper who was offering assistance to a driver on the shoulder of a road, activated his overhead lights, investigated and administered a DUI test to the driver of the vehicle.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that when the State Trooper pulled up behind a motorist who was lawfully parked on the side of the road, he subjected her to an illegal investigatory detention because he had his overhead emergency lights flashing when he pulled up. The trooper basically subjected her to a vehicle stop without the requisite probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The act of interrogating and administering a DUI field test and breathalyzer is deemed unlawful, due to the fact the State Trooper stated he only wanted to offer assistance to the vehicle pulled over on the side of the road.
On June 14, 2013, around 9:30 p.m., a Pennsylvania State Trooper observed a vehicle pulled over on the right shoulder of Interstate 79 with no hazard lights on. The State Trooper saw the engine was running on the vehicle, proceeded to roll down his passenger window, and pulled alongside the vehicle. He noted the sole occupant, Mrs. Livingstone, gave him a “hundred-mile stare” with “glossy eyes looking through him” when he motioned for the driver to roll down the window to ensure she was safe.
Mrs. Livingstone was sitting in the driver’s seat entering an address into her navigation system when the State Trooper activated his overhead emergency lights, and proceeded to pull alongside of Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle. She then proceeded to roll down her window as instructed by the State Trooper, where she stated she was safe. The State Trooper asked where she was traveling to, and Mrs. Livingston replied “to New York for a dragon boat race.”
That’s when the State Trooper pulled his cruiser in front of Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle, exited the cruiser, and approached her vehicle on foot. At that same time, another State Trooper proceeded to turn on its overhead emergency lights while pulling directly behind Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle, but not exiting his cruiser.
When the State Trooper approached Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle, he asked to see her driver’s license and if she had been drinking that night. She mentioned she had not been drinking, but planned to once she reached her destination. She explained she had finished working around 8:00 p.m. and had been driving for approximately 90 minutes. She then stated she was a CEO of 5 companies and often worked long hours. She also mentioned that she had 2 sons at the Citadel, and feared her sons would get in trouble for their mom’s traffic stop. She also told the State Trooper she was afraid of him.
Based on the appearance of Mrs. Livingstone’s eyes, and the fact she was acting confused, the State Trooper asked Mrs. Livingstone to exit her vehicle where he could perform Field Sobriety tests. Mrs. Livingstone exited the vehicle crying, where the State Trooper advised he intended to administer a portable breathalyzer test. Assuming her test was clear, he would then help her get to her destination.
The results of the breathalyzer revealed Mrs. Livingstone had the presence of alcohol in her system. As a result, the State Trooper placed Mrs. Livingstone under arrest, and transported her back to the barracks where an EMT administered a blood test. The test revealed that Mrs. Livingstone had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .205%. Mrs. Livingstone was then charged with 3 crimes: DUI – General Impairment, DUI – Highest Rate of Alcohol, and Careless Driving.
Fighting For Justice
On March 17, 2014, Mrs. Livingstone filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence, stating that once the State Trooper activated his overhead emergency lights and pulled alongside her, she was subjected to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspension. Following the suppression hearing, a judge denied that motion on June 18, 2014, concluding the State Trooper had a duty to determine whether the vehicle on the side of the interstate needed assistance, and the act of the State Trooper approaching the vehicle with his overhead emergency lights activated was a mere encounter. The judge also stated that once the State Trooper observed Mrs. Livingstone’s “glossy eyes” it was reasonable to continue with his investigation.
On October 20, 2014, Mrs. Livingstone was convicted of all charges, and sentenced to an aggregate term of 24 months of intermediate punishment, with the first 90 days to be served on Electronic Monitoring (house arrest), followed by probation, and fines and court costs. Mrs. Livingstone appealed her judgement of sentence to the Superior Court.
Most drivers recognize that flashing overhead police cruiser lights are a strong signal that a police officer is stopping a vehicle and the driver is not free to terminate this encounter. As stated in the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual (“PDM”), the instructions for proceeding when being stopped by police are as follows: “You will know a police officer wants you to pull over when he or she activates the flashing red and blue lights on top of the police vehicle.” The PDM further “recommends” that drivers follow certain procedures “anytime a police vehicle stops behind you.”
Those procedures include turning off the engine and radio, rolling down a window to enable communication with the officer, limiting their movements and the movements of passengers, placing their hands on the steering wheel, keeping the vehicle doors closed and remaining inside the vehicle, and keeping their seatbelt fastened. If these instructions do not explicitly instruct motorists who are already stopped on the side of the road that they are not free to leave when a police vehicle, with its overhead emergency lights activated, pulls alongside their vehicle, we conclude that it is eminently reasonable that a motorist would believe he or she is not free to leave under these circumstances.
Moreover, pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Code, a driver of a motor vehicle “who willfully fails or refuses to bring his vehicle to a stop, or who otherwise flees or attempts to elude a pursuing police officer, when given a visual and audible signal to bring the vehicle to a stop, ” may be convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s ruling. The Superior Court accepted the State Trooper’s argument that the act of pulling alongside Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle with the police cruiser’s overhead emergency lights activated was a mere encounter, and not an investigative detention.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s ruling. The Supreme Court held that because Mrs. Livingstone’s vehicle was stopped on the side of the road with no hazard lights on, no visible signs of distress to the vehicle or the driver, and no reports of need for assistance, the acts of the Trooper resulted in an illegal investigatory detention.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was a significant win for this motorist and other similarly situated motorists.