May a sheriff conduct a stop and search based on observing an expired vehicle registration tag, treating it as a “breach of the peace?”

Commonwealth v. Copenhaver, 200 A.3d 956 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted June 25, 2019, appeal docket 48 MAP 2019

An Adams County Deputy Sheriff initiated a traffic stop of Copenhaver’s vehicle based on an expired registration, which, after the denial of Copenhaver’s motion to suppress on grounds that the stop and search was illegal,  led to Copenhaver’s conviction and sentencing for DUI and summary vehicle code offenses.  

On appeal, Copenhaver acknowledged that in Pennsylvania sheriffs and their deputies have authority to detain a suspect for common law breach of the peace, but that an expired registration sticker is not a breach of the peace, and sheriffs have no authority to enforce all provisions of the Vehicle Code. The Superior Court affirmed, reasoning that although not all Vehicle Code violations amount to breaches of the peace that can be a basis for a sheriff’s arrest, the Superior Court had previously found that driving on a suspended license was a breach of the peace actionable by a sheriff, and that the Supreme Court did not disturb that holding, albeit affirming on different grounds:

Per the stipulated record, Deputy [] had the same training and qualifications as a police officer in Pennsylvania, as he completed the “Act 120 wavier course” and was previously employed as a Maryland police officer. [Citation omitted]. Deputy [] conducted the stop of [Copenhaver’s] vehicle when he saw the expired registration. We note that while our Supreme Court in [Commonwealth v.] Marconi [64 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2013)] intimated that not all Motor Vehicle Code violations amount to breaches of peace, it did not expand further, such that we have no express authority with regard to [Copenhaver’s] violation of the Vehicle Code, [Citation Omitted]. Although the Supreme Court affirmed our decision in [Commonwealth v.] Lockridge [810 A.2d 1191 (Pa. 2002)] on other grounds, and noted that “it was not necessary for the Superior Court to pass upon [the defendant’s] contention regarding a breach of the peace,” we find our analysis in that case to be instructive. In particular, we described the defendant’s breach of the peace argument in Lockridge to be “unconvincing and his interpretation of the [Commonwealth v.] Leet [641 A.2d 299 (Pa. 1994)] decision faulty.” [Citation omitted]. We opined that the defendant’s “interpretation of Leet illogically limits the authority of a trained deputy to issuing citations for only those violations of the Vehicle Code that involve behavior or action similar to those actions prohibited under the disorderly conduct provision of the Crimes Code.” [Citation omitted]. We also stated unequivocally that the defendant’s “interpretation of Leet defies logic” and found its “breach of the peace” argument to be “devoid of merit.” [Citation omitted]. Given this guidance – where we determined that diving under suspension is a breach of the peace – we cannot say in [Copenhaver’s] case that driving with an expired registration is not. Accordingly, we are not persuaded that [Copenhaver’s] first issue merits relief.

Slip Op. at 8-10.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur for the following issue:

Did the Superior Court err in finding that an expired vehicle registration tag constitutes a “breach of the peace”, thus granting sheriffs and citizens a common law power to arrest on that basis alone?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.