Pennsylvania appeals court: If a cop says you can go, you can go

by | Jun 5, 2015 | Criminal Defense

Traffic cops really hope you’ll talk to them when you’re pulled over. It’s not that they’re lonely; they’re hoping you’ll divulge something incriminating. It’s a routine tactic among traffic cops to drag out traffic stops in an effort to pressure you into confessing something.

Not to be unfriendly, but exactly how much probing “small talk” are you required to put up with? Once the cop finishes writing your ticket, wouldn’t keeping you waiting be wrong? Legally, isn’t that an unjustified restraint on your freedom?

Indeed, the tactic has come under increasing scrutiny by the courts, and  a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court (our appeals court) took up the issue recently in a case involving a man who was pulled over by a state trooper in 2012.

Late-night stop of nervous, talkative driver = drug dealer, trooper believes

In 2012, a Pennsylvania state trooper pulled a driver over for speeding on I-95. The driver struck the officer as nervous and over-talkative which, according to the officer’s testimony, was clear reason to suspect he was dealing drugs.

None of that excessive talk turned up anything juicy, though, so the trooper issued a warning and said the driver was free to go.

He didn’t actually let him go. Instead, he initiated a second round of interrogation. It wasn’t an oversight — the officer testified that it was tactical. He believed his best bet for getting consent to search was to pretend to end the traffic stop and then reengage. It worked; the search turned up a Ziploc bag with OxyContin pills inside, other drugs, and more than $1,000 in cash.

If you consent to a search your car, you usually can’t argue the search was illegal. In this case, however, the appeals court felt the driver had been unlawfully pressured into giving his consent.

Cops are allowed to lie in certain circumstances, but not about whether or not you’re free to leave. Moreover, the trooper’s deliberate, intentional insincerity and led the judges to conclude he probably wouldn’t have reacted well if the man had tried to drive away.

“We cannot conclude that a reasonable person would feel free to leave the scene,” Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan wrote for the court.

In other words, once the business of the traffic stop is over and you haven’t been arrested, cops can’t pressure you to stick around and play True Confessions.