Are Out of State Law Enforcement Officials Acting in Their Own State at the Request of PA Officials Agents of PA Subject to the Same Statutory and Constitutional Standards?

Commonwealth v. Britton, 2018 WL 1165543 (Pa. Super. 2018) (unreported), allocatur granted Oct. 2, 2018, appeal docket 55 MAP 2018

Stacy Britton participated in the murder of a man in Pennsylvania in 2002. Thereafter, she relocated to California, where she was residing in 2015 when, after being implicated in the Pennsylvania murder, she was interviewed at the request of Pennsylvania law enforcement officers by two California policemen. As summarized by the trial court:

Defendant was subsequently interviewed by Detective Jon Cahow (“Detective Cahow”) and Detective Chuck Phillips (“Detective Phillips”) of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department Homicide Unit. Defendant indicated that the Victim was killed because he stole money and drugs from them and that James Britton devised a plan to murder the Victim, which they both rehearsed beforehand. According to Defendant, the murder occurred on July 4, 2002 at their residence in Wilkes-Barre where she was present and participated in a struggle with Victim. Defendant stated that they used knives and a hammer in the assault. After they killed the Victim, Defendant indicated that she helped moved the body into the basement and, a few days later, she dismembered the Victim’s head, hands, and legs. Defendant told police that she packaged the body parts in black trash bags and both she and James Britton transported the bags to Jackson Township in Monroe County, where James set the bags on fire.

Attachment to Superior Court Slip Op. at 2.

The trial court denied Britton’s motion to suppress her statements made to California law enforcement officers and the Superior Court affirmed.  Britton argued that because California law enforcement officials recorded her interview without prior approval of a neutral magistrate, her statements during the interviews must be suppressed.  As summarized by the Superior Court in its unpublished opinion adopting the trial court opinion:

  • no Pennsylvania state interest would be advanced by analyzing propriety of surreptitious recording of Appellant under Pennsylvania law because recording did not occur in Pennsylvania and interviews were not conducted by Pennsylvania law enforcement;
  • California legislature enacted laws to permit law enforcement officers to record individuals without prior court approval;
  • while Pennsylvania Wiretap Act would not allow similar police conduct, Pennsylvania has no interest in interview recordings conducted in California, even if results are later used in Pennsylvania proceedings;
  • Pennsylvania Superior Court has already decided that if legislature of another state allows wiretapping within its borders, Pennsylvania courts will not question that decision;
  • thus, California law controls and court must determine whether recordings at issue were valid, legal, and properly authorized under California law;
  • recordings were legal under California law.

Slip Op. at 2. Furthermore, Superior Court noted that Britton failed to cite any legal authority supporting her argument that California detectives were acting as agents of the Pennsylvania state police and were therefore required to conform to Pennsylvania law.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to decide:

Should out of state law enforcement officers acting within their own state but solely at the request of Pennsylvania law enforcement officers be considered agents of the Pennsylvania law enforcement and as such governed by the same statutory and constitutional standards as the Pennsylvania law enforcement officers?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker