Criminal law; Suppression; Terry Stop; Reasonable Suspicion

Commonwealth v. Jackson, 271 A.3d 461 (Pa. Super. 2021), allocatur granted Aug. 2, 2022, appeal docket 24 EAP 2022

This case arises from the Commonwealth’s appeal from the suppression court’s order granting Kevin Jackson’s motion to suppress evidence that he abandoned while feeling from an officer. The relevant factual history is as follows:

On December 10, 2019, at approximately 7:16 p.m., on or about the 4900 block of Penn Street, Officer Swinarski was on routine patrol in a marked vehicle at which time he heard two to four gunshots in a northern direction from his position. In his officer vehicle, he made his way to the location where he believed the shots had been fired by traveling northbound on Penn Street and then turning westbound onto Harrison. At that point, he countered the Defendant, Mr. Jackson.

He saw Mr. Jackson running eastbound down Harrison on the sidewalk. [exiting his cruiser,] the officer then asked [Mr. Jackson] why he was running, and [he] responded, “Because I heard gunshots.” And [Mr. Jackson] continued running. At which point, the officer commanded [him] to stop.

Mr. Jackson did not stop as commanded by the officer. He kept running, [and] the officer chased Mr. Jackson. During the course of the chase, Mr. Jackson disposed of some items, which were later recovered and deemed to be a cell phone and a gun . . . .[After Mr. Jackson] disposed of the items, the officer [caught] up and detained him with the use of handcuffs and then conducted a search.

[T]he point at which the officer detained [Mr. Jackson] was after [Mr. Jackson] explained his reasons for running and he proceeded to run. At that point, the officer issued a command for Mr. Jackson to stop. And that would trigger the investigatory-detention standard, which required that [the officer] needed to have a reasonable basis to issue that command to order Mr. Jackson to stop.

Slip op. at 2 (footnote omitted). Based on these facts, the suppression court found that the officer lacked a reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Jackson. The suppression court reasoned that the location in question was not a high-crime area and that there was no evidence on the record to support that determination. The suppression court further indicated that the evidence showed only that an individual was running for what appeared to be a  good reason – he heard gunshots. Accordingly, the suppression court concluded that the officer had no reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Jackson and suppressed all the seized evidence as being the fruit of an unconstitutional Terry stop.

In its appeal to Superior Court, the Commonwealth asked whether “the suppression court erred in suppressing a gun and cellphone [Mr. Jackson] discarded as he ran from the area where gunshots had been fired?” Slip op at 3 (internal quotations omitted). The Commonwealth’s main argument was that the officer had reasonable and, therefore, a constitutional basis to detain Mr. Jackson when he ordered him to stop. Superior Court summarized the legal test for  a constitutional Terry stop as follows:

In order to determine whether the police had a reasonable suspicion [when they executed a Terry stop], the totality of the circumstances – the whole picture – must be considered. [In re D.M., 781 A.2d 1161, 1163 (Pa. 2001),] citing United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981). Based upon the whole picture, the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular persons topped of criminal activity. Id. at 417-18. [I]n determining whether the officer acted reasonably . . . due weight must be given, not to his inchoate and unparticularized suspicion of “hunch,” but to the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience. Terry [v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968)].

Slip op. at 4 (internal quotations omitted). Superior Court explained that in Commonwealth v. Bryant, 866 A.2d 1143 (Pa. Super. 2005), a similar case, it held that an officer may direct a fleeing individual to stop for questioning if that officer deduces that the individual stopped is potentially the perpetrator, a victim, or a witness of a potential shooting. Similar to the case at bar, in Bryant, the officer did not personally observe a shooting, and, notwithstanding this, Superior Court held that based on the totality of the circumstances “being in a high-crime area, the police officer hearing gunshots and seeing three men running from the area where he believed the gunshots originated) justified a Terry stop.” Slip op. at 5. Rejecting  Jackson’s argument that  Bryant is inapposite because the suppression court here found that the Commonwealth failed to prove Mr. Jackson was in a high-crime area, Superior Court explained that the officer  “inferred from the totality of the circumstances that Mr. Jackson ‘could be the victim, the witness, or possible an offender at that time.’ N.T. 2/11/21, at 27. This real-time assessment of a highly dangerous, rapidly developing situation was well reasoned and it comports with Bryant.” Slip op. at 5-6. Accordingly, Superior Court concluded that based on the circumstances, “the officer’s inference that Mr. Jackson was probably connected to the active-shooter event was quite reasonable, regardless of the neighborhood where these events unfolded.” Slip op. at 6. Thus, Superior Court concluded that the suppression court erred in finding that the officer conducted an unlawful Terry stop and vacated the order and remanded for the suppression court to determine whether the officer’s actions following the lawful Terry stop were constitutional.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider the following issue:

Did the Superior Court err, and enter a ruling which conflicts with holdings of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court, and other panels of the Pennsylvania Superior Court when it held that the [suppression] court committed an error of law when it suppressed evidence recovered after a person was seized by police even though the officer did not suspect the individual stopped of criminal activity?


For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.