Reasonable Suspicion Needed to Extend Traffic Stop for Car Search

Following a recent Superior Court decision, police cannot reengage a driver or passenger in a car to investigate whether there is ongoing criminal activity without possessing reasonable suspicion. In Commonwealth v. Ngyuen, the court stated that after issuing a citation or warning, police need to articulate specific facts to continue the detention.

In Ngyuen, the Pennsylvania State Police pulled over a car on I-95 for speeding. After pulling the car over and having the driver exit the car, the trooper stated that the driver was overly apologetic and speaking too much. When a second state trooper engaged the passenger, Ngyuen, he refused to answer the trooper’s questions and did not make eye contact. After issuing a warning, the troopers told the driver he was free to leave. As the driver reached his car door, the trooper reengaged the driver and asked if he could speak with the driver further. The state trooper then asked the driver if he could search the car and the driver gave permission. At that point, the state troopers told Ngyuen to get out of the car and asked if they could frisk him for officer safety. When frisking Ngyuen, police felt a cell phone, cash and what they believed to be, and ultimately proved to be, a bag of pills.

Where the police intend to reengage someone following a traffic stop to investigate a crime, it constitutes a second detention of the car’s occupants. Reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed must accompany this second detention. The court ruled that the second encounter was a detention because the police sought to investigate whether the occupants were involved in any illegal activity. Upon looking at the factors the police relied upon in making the decision to investigate further, talking too much and being “overly apologetic” do not constitute specific and articulable facts that any type of criminal activity is taking place. Thus, the detention after the traffic stop was illegal. The taint of that illegal detention invalidated the later consent to search of the car and Ngyuen’s person through a pat-down search.

When charged with a crime following a search of a car, the outcome hinges on whether police performed a legal search. Police often use traffic violations as tools to investigate criminal activity. When faced with charges stemming from a car stop, it is best to seek the assistance of an experienced, knowledgeable Montgomery County criminal defense team. Call for a free consultation.


By Criminal Defense Attorney Matthew Quigg