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Superior Court Declines to Expand Collective-Knowledge Doctrine

posted Aug 2, 2015, 5:23 PM by Resty Manapat

A police officer executing a search warrant at a man's home did not have probable cause to arrest another man on the premises, despite the fact that another police officer saw the defendant take part in a drug transaction days before, the state Superior Court has ruled. 

A unanimous three-judge panel of the court ruled in Commonwealth v. Yong that since the officer who saw the drug deal did not relay information about the defendant to the arresting officer before the arrest, the collective-knowledge doctrine did not apply to the situation to give the arresting officer probable cause. The three-judge panel's decision overruled the lower court's ruling to deny the defendants' suppression motion. 

Although state prosecutors had argued that, since the two police officers worked closely together, their collective knowledge was enough to overcome the suppression motion, Superior Court Judge David N. Wecht, who wrote the majority opinion, said the state's argument "stretched the [collective-knowledge doctrine] rule beyond its breaking point." 

"Our law does not permit a police officer to make a warrantless arrest and then later justify it based upon his colleague's knowledge," Wecht said. "An expansive interpretation of the collective-knowledge doctrine does not comport with the fundamental requirement that warrantless arrests be supported by probable cause." 

Judge Anne E. Lazarus filed a concurring opinion. 

According to Wecht, during a controlled narcotics buy in September 2011, police officer Joseph McCook watched Alwasi Yong take money from a confidential informant and pass it along to his co-defendant, Samuel Vega, who then entered the home and returned with 12 packets of marijuana, Wecht said. 

Two days later, police saw Vega and Yong in front of the same home, and an undercover officer bought marijuana from Vega. About 10 minutes later, police executed a search warrant on the home. 

When they entered, Yong was standing on the first floor. Officer Gerald Gibson immediately arrested Yong, and found a loaded 0.38 revolver concealed in Yong's waistband, Wecht said. Yong was charged with drug- and firearm-related offenses. 

At a suppression hearing, McCook testified that he saw Yong accept money from the confidential informant and then hand it to Vega, who then gave the informant drugs. He testified that he had seen hundreds of similar transactions during his 18 years as a police officer. 

Gibson did not testify at the suppression hearing, according to Wecht; however, McCook said he was present when Gibson recovered the gun from Yong. 

The court determined that there was probable cause, and did not suppress the physical evidence from the search, Wecht said. 

On appeal, the parties disputed whether McCook's knowledge could be imputed to Gibson under the collective-knowledge doctrine. 

According to Wecht, the doctrine was established in the 1962 U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit case Williams v. United States, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the rule in 1972. Since then the courts have held that an arresting officer can rely on the instructing officer's knowledge to establish probable cause. 

Wecht noted there was nothing in the suppression record to show that McCook ordered or directed Gibson to arrest Yong, or that Gibson received information, which, coupled with the facts he had personally observed, provided probable cause. 

"This lack of evidence compels the conclusion that Officer Gibson—acting of his own accord—made a warrantless arrest," Wecht said. "The fact that, unbeknownst to Officer Gibson, his colleague Officer McCook had observed Yong participate in a drug transaction two days earlier cannot suffice to permit the commonwealth to leapfrog the Fourth Amendment." 

Wecht noted that some jurisdictions have allowed a "horizontal" application of the collective-knowledge doctrine, in which law enforcement officers each possess "pieces of the probable cause puzzle, but no single officer possesses information that amounts to probable cause." But he noted that this approach has never been adopted by Pennsylvania courts, and said there does not appear to be a coherent rationale for expanding the scope of the doctrine beyond situations where an officer with probable cause directs another officer to make an arrest. 

Also, even under the broader "horizontal" application, Gibson still would not have probable cause, Wecht said, pointing to the fact that the suppression hearing transcript lacked any testimony that Gibson and McCook communicated with each other. 

Wecht said he understood the trial court's temptation to infer that McCook instructed Gibson, and noted that evidence at the trial indicated as much; however, the suppression determination should be limited to the facts at the hearing, Wecht said. 

"The result we reach in this case is not a consequence of a hyper technical legal rule," Wecht said. "The collective-knowledge doctrine unquestionably authorizes police officers to act upon information or instructions from their fellow officers. ... At Yong's suppression hearing, it was the commonwealth's burden to establish that officer McCook directed Officer Gibson to arrest Yong." 

Yong's attorney, Daniel John O'Riordan, noted that the Superior Court's decision also upheld Yong's conviction for criminal conspiracy, and said that his client is considering appealing the decision. 

Hugh J. Burns Jr., of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said that the office has disagreements on the legal analysis, and is seeking further review of the decision. 

Source: The legal Intelligencer