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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Expired Vehicle Registration Isn’t ‘Breach of the Peace’ Justifying Traffic Stop

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania described the contours of “breach of the peace” and held that operation of a motor vehicle with an expired registration sticker is a traffic violation that does not qualify as a breach of the peace justifying a traffic stop.

Victor Lee Copenhaver was convicted of driving under the influence after being arrested during a traffic stop. Prior to trial, Copenhaver filed a motion to suppress all evidence, asserting that the deputy sheriff lacked authority to conduct the traffic stop. He argued that the deputy may arrest for violations of the Vehicle Code only when he witnesses a violation that involves a breach of the peace, but an expired registration is not a breach of the peace.

In lieu of testimony at the suppression hearing, the parties stipulated that (1) the deputy observed that the registration on the truck was expired, (2) the registration number was identified as belonging to a vehicle other than the pickup truck, and (3) the deputy had training and qualifications equivalent to that of a police officer.

The common pleas court denied the motion on the grounds that the registration sticker, belonging to a different vehicle, meant the vehicle could have been stolen. This gave the deputy authority to conduct the traffic stop because theft of a vehicle is a violation that constitutes a breach of the peace.

Copenhaver was convicted at the ensuing bench trial, and he appealed, arguing that the deputy did not know prior to the traffic stop that the registration belonged to a different vehicle. The Superior Court affirmed, holding that driving with an expired registration — regardless of whether the registration belonged to another vehicle — was a breach of the peace. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted Copenhaver’s petition for further review. Importantly, the Court expressly limited the question under review to “whether operating a vehicle with an expired registration, standing alone, amounts to a breach of the peace, and hence, that is the only question we will resolve.”

The Court observed that deputies who have received the same training required of police officers have residual common law authority to enforce the Vehicle Code when they witness a violation that comprises a breach of the peace. Commonwealth v. Marconi, 64 A.3d 1036 (Penn. 2013). A breach of the peace “generally manifests [itself] by some outward, visible, audible or violent demonstration; not from quiet, orderly, and peaceable acts secretly done….” Commonwealth v. Sherman, 14 Pa. D.&C. 4 (C.P. Phila. 1930). Legal scholars agree that “both the major common law treatises and the immediate post-framing American sources indicated that ‘breach of the peace’ was understood to refer to violent or potentially violent public tumults or disturbances.” Thomas Y. Davies, The Fictional Character of Law-and-Order Originalism: A Case Study of the Distortions and Evasions of Framing-Era Arrest Doctrine in Atwater v. Lago Vista, 37 Wake Forest L. Rev. 239 (2002). “A breach of the peace is ... a disturbance of public order by an act of violence, or by any act likely to produce violence, or which, by causing consternation and alarm, disturbs the peace and quiet of the community.” People v. Perry, 193 N.E. 175 (N.Y. 1934).

The Court announced: “we now hold that—for purposes of a deputy sheriff’s common law authority to enforce the Vehicle Code—a breach of the peace arises from an act or circumstance that causes harm to persons or property, or has a reasonable potential to cause such harm, or otherwise to provoke violence, danger, or disruption to public order.”

The Court then concluded that a vehicle’s registration tag expires with the passage of time and is passive in nature. It does not tend to incite violence, disorder, or public or private insecurity. Thus, it does not comprise a breach of the peace and does not justify a traffic stop.

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Copenhaver



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