Police must be careful in arrests

Police don’t make an arrest or interrogate a suspect or search a vehicle based on a hunch, a tip or intuition.

If they do, they can find their case, evidence – such as drugs, firearms or cash – thrown out later in criminal court.

Police often must make decisions, sometimes in an instant, when they suspect a crime is being committed, according to police Capt. Tim Miller, a speaker at the third installment of the Boot Camp of the Mind training seminar Monday at City Hall.

When police conduct a stop, question, interrogate, search or place individuals under arrest, they must be sure their actions will stand up in court, he said.

“There’s a lot of concerns about probable cause,” said Ron James, executive director of the Williamsport-Lycoming Crime Commission, one of the two organizations sponsoring the event. “People may wonder why they call police and they don’t come until it’s too late and the drug dealers are gone. What they may not realize is, despite neighbors and taxpayers calling the police about a drug house or such activity, a lot of times the police already are monitoring the activities. The problem in the city is, drug dealers recognize they are under watch, and will jump from house to house.”

Miller described an example of how former city Bureau of Fire Chief Butch Anthony observed a drug transaction outside his West Edwin Street house a few years ago. Anthony relayed the information to the watch commander, who was Miller, who then contacted another officer in the field who recognized one of the vehicles and who had a suspicion something was amiss.

Police eventually found several ounces of crack cocaine and cash in the vehicle, but when the case went to court, it was thrown out. The reason is it was ruled that Anthony was an average citizen who would not have known the difference between a drug deal and a handshake.

Miller also tried to explain some of the levels of police interaction with the public.

The first level is of a consensual nature, he said, which is an interaction based on consent and is terminable based on either party. However, the way the officer frames a question also has a lot to do with where it is going. For instance, “May I talk to you?” is a world of difference than, “Hey, stop!” Miller said.

With a second level, or investigatory stop and temporary detention, suspicions by the officer that are objectively reasonable at the time must be taken into account.

However, again, the officer faces a potential lawsuit or a civil rights case if he or she only has a hunch a person is committing a criminal act. The individual doesn’t have to give the officer permission to search their person.

Police can do a limited pat-down of outer garments to see if the suspect is armed or possesses and item that may be harmful to the officer.

But, again, while the officer may ask an individual what is in his or her pocket, that person can say it is none of the officer’s business – if it’s not a weapon – and the officer can’t say whether he or she was in fear of safety.

Miller said the suspicion must be reasonable in order for a judge and jury to make a decision, because these people in the court are going to review the arrest in hindsight.

“It takes years of police experience to grasp these concepts,” Miller said. “It takes an officer going to court and losing.”

The officer can’t have mere intuition but must look at the totality of the circumstances, which the court system has months to analyze. If the stop isn’t done right, the evidence, such as firearms or drugs found, will be of no consequence because of the numerous laws meant to protect civil rights.

“Reasonable suspicion prior and an individual’s prior criminal record are not enough,” Miller said. Even a suspect’s attempt to hide proper identity does not create reasonable suspicion in order to prove criminal behavior, he said.

There were other laws and scenarios that Miller addressed.

“It’s not as easy as putting somebody in jail because of a witness to crime or a tip,” Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said of the case and others like it, especially concerned as more neighborhood watch groups form in the city to counter the growing number of drug-related crimes.

“The police operate under laws and variables of laws, which I believe tend to be pro-criminal, and they must take into account their actions that are determined by a judge who issues a sentence,” Campana said.