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DRIVER’S NERVOUS BEHAVIOR ALONE DURING A TRAFFIC STOP DOES NOT JUSTIFY FURTHER INVESTIGATION

| May 1, 2021 | Firm News

The PA Superior Court has recently ruled that a driver’s nervous behavior alone does not provide a sufficient basis to warrant police to ask him to step out of the vehicle for an investigatory detention.

Andrew Jordan Mattis was convicted for possession of marijuana (small amount personal use), use/possession of drug paraphernalia, and maximum speed limits after a vehicle stop and subsequent search of that vehicle resulted in the seizure of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

A PA State Trooper testified that after stopping Mattis’ vehicle for speeding, he made contact with Mattis and noticed that Mattis was “extraordinarily nervous,” and “seemed to be fidgeting around a lot inside the vehicle.” The trooper further explained that, to him, “extraordinary” nervousness meant that Mattis was shaking, not looking him in the eye, and not speaking strongly and firmly to the Trooper as the Trooper tried to make eye contact with him during their interaction.

The Trooper also testified that he asked Mattis to exit his vehicle in an attempt to discover the cause of Mattis’ nervous behavior. However, as the Court noted, the Trooper “did not make this request in furtherance of his investigation for the speeding violation. Rather, the trooper sought to obtain additional information unrelated to the initial traffic stop.” The Court determined that fact to be significant because “once the primary purpose of the initial stop for the speeding violation ended, the trooper’s authority to order [Mattis] to exit his car had extinguished.”

Applying the relevant legal principles defining the scope of a police officer’s authority during vehicles stops, the Court concluded that the Trooper’s request for Mattis to exit his vehicle constituted an investigatory detention, requiring reasonable suspicion. And, in this scenario, Mattis’ nervous behavior alone did not provide a sufficient basis to warrant an investigatory detention. In addition, in evaluating whether Mattis’ “consent” to search his vehicle came as a result of an unlawful detention occurring after the initial lawful stop, the Court found notable that the Trooper acknowledged that Mattis was not free to leave once he exited his vehicle and the Trooper retained possession of Mattis’ driver’s license and registration during each request for consent.

Under these circumstances, the Superior Court concluded that Mattis’ consent to search was not constitutionally valid and his conviction was accordingly vacated and the case remanded for a new trial at which time the Commonwealth will not be permitted to introduce the illegally seized evidence.

Commonwealth v. Mattis, No. 856 WDA 2020 (Pa. Super. April 30, 2021).

NOTE – This topic is not, in any way, new or novel in this Commonwealth or the country as a whole. In a recent article authored by Spotlight PA reporter Joseph Darius Jaafari that is a very informative read, Jaafari wrote that “[l]aw enforcement officers across the country have long used administrative or other traffic violations considered to be a low public safety threat as a gateway for searching vehicles and compiling incriminating evidence.”

SOURCES/LINKS:

Commonwealth v. Mattis, No. 856 WDA 2020 (Pa. Super. April 30, 2021).

How Pa. troopers use sweating, stuttering during traffic stops to launch vehicle searches, Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA | April 28, 2021 https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2021/04/daunte-wright-pennsylvania-state-police-traffic-stops-searches/