Officers from a Borough in Northeastern PA have asked us to help them determine if they can pursue and stop individuals who run away from a street corner upon seeing their police car enter the area.
The officers report that they have not observed the individuals who flee upon seeing the police car engaging in criminal activity and that their department has not received any reports or tips from the public that the individuals have engaged in criminal acts. In addition the area of the street corner is not known for drug activity.
We have found several PA cases pertaining to this issue.
As is always the case, the key issue is Probable Cause (PC). You will recall from your academy training that probable cause has been defined by our courts as a requisite element of a valid arrest, consisting of the existence of facts and circumstances within one’s knowledge and of which one has reasonably trustworthy information, sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that a crime has been committed (See 267 U.S. 132). PC can be established in many ways. It may be established on the basis of the cumulative knowledge of the investigating officers (See 380 U.S. 102); However, PC cannot be based on facts which are completely innocent in themselves (See 393 U.S. 410); Furthermore, the fact that the suspect(s) have been previously involved in similar crimes, if any have in fact been committed, is not of important value (See 393 U.S. 410); PC must be based on particular facts and not mere conclusions (See 378 U.S. 108).
With that being said we will now delve into the cases we have discovered pertaining to the issue of Flight as an element of Probable Cause.
* Commonwealth v. Biagini, 540 Pa. 22, 655 A. 2d 492 (1995) & In Interest of Barry W., 423 Pa. Super. 549, 621 A. 2d 669 (1993): The mere fact that a person quickens his pace upon being observed by police officers and starts to run when a police officer begins to chase him does not give rise to a reasonable belief that criminal activity is afoot, and is therefore insufficient to justify even a Terry Stop (See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, (1968), absent some other factor which would give rise to criminal conduct. Thus, the court held that an anonymous tip that a male was selling drugs at a certain location, coupled with the flight of the male upon the approach of the police, without more, did not give rise to probable cause to arrest nor reasonable suspicion to stop and detain the male. The court stated: “We are unwilling, as a matter of law, to hold that an anonymous tip bearing no indication of reliability, and containing no predictions of future behavior, and unsupported by any corroborative observations by an officer, when coupled with flight, justifies a forcible Terry stop.” (See 621 A. 2d at 678).
* Commonwealth v. Chase, 394 Pa. Super. 168, 575 A. 2d 574 (1990): “although flight, in & of itself, does not supply probable cause to arrest, flight in combination with other factors may reasonably indicate that an individual has committed a criminal offense”.
* In Interest of D.W., 427 Pa. Super. 629, 629 A. 2d 1387 (1993):police observation of a suspicious exchange of cash for a small packet at 2:40 a.m. in a high-crime area, coupled with an anonymous tip of drug dealing and the flight of the suspect’s companions, supported a finding of probable cause to arrest.
* Commonwealth v. Woodson, 342 Pa. Super. 392, 493 A. 2d 78 (1985): Finding probable cause for arrest of suspect matching description of “young black man wearing a beige sweater or shirt” who evaded police and offered unsubstantiated explanation for his presence near the crime scene.
* Commonwealth v. Phillips, 338 Pa. Super. 274, 487 A. 2d 962 (1985): Flight of companions on approach of suspect by officer supported a finding of probable cause to arrest.
* Commonwealth v. Williams, 317 Pa. Super. 456, 464 A. 2d 411 (1983): Finding probable cause for arrest of suspect matching description of “black man with a mustache” seen near time and place of crime, who repeatedly fled upon seeing police.
We believe that our fellow officers in the Northeastern PA Borough should not attempt to “pursue & stop” the individuals that flee from the street corner upon seeing their police car enter the area without having some articulable reason to believe that the fleeing individuals are involved in criminal activity at the time they flee upon seeing the police car or that the fleeing individuals match the description of individuals that have been involved in criminal activity.
However, we also believe that our fellow officers should actively observe the fleeing individuals by following after them to learn the location to which they are fleeing and to simply perform intelligence gathering as there is nothing in our laws to prevent officers from simply patrolling their jurisdictions on foot, observing activities of citizens, and making notes on their observations.