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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Retention of Defendant’s ID Card Constitutes ‘Seizure’ for Fourth Amendment Purposes

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held on January 22, 2020, that the retention of a person’s identification card by law enforcement constituted a “seizure” under the U.S. Constitution, triggering the protections of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

The case came before the Court after Harold Cost was successful in his efforts to suppress evidence found after an arrest, where Philadelphia police officers had retained his ID card during questioning and subsequently found that he had a firearm. The Commonwealth appealed that decision, arguing that the incident was merely an encounter and not a seizure. The Superior Court agreed on appeal and reversed the suppression court’s decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

At the suppression hearing, one of the officers testified that Cost and his friends were stopped in an alley in the city known for high crime activity. In an incident that the officer said “lasted less than a minute,” Cost handed the officer his ID card, and a warrant check came back all clear. The officer also admitted that he didn’t see any criminal activity by Cost and his friends.

However, the two officers that stopped the men assumed a “field interview stance” and asked further questions about their intentions in the alley. Maybe there was some “gambling, you know, maybe smoking a little weed,” one of the officers testified at the suppression hearing.

Cost had a backpack, and an officer asked, “you have anything in that backpack I need to know about?” Cost acknowledged that he had a firearm in the backpack. Throughout the encounter, the police held the ID cards of the men.

Yet, when questioned at the hearing about the stop, an officer said that the men, including Cost, could have “walked off at any time,” and they didn’t have to answer any questions. The suppression court disagreed and concluded that Cost and his friends had been seized illegally by the police and suppressed the firearm evidence.

The court found that, under a totality of the circumstances, the officers’ actions did “escalate the incident” beyond a mere encounter. The judge explained that the officer’s question about whether there was anything in the backpack “that would hurt me” put the incident “way past” an encounter. “That’s what you ask when the guy is under arrest,” the judge said.

The superior court, on appeal, did not agree: “The officer posed innocuous questions to the men while on a public street, and did not display their weapons. Accordingly, under the totality of the circumstances, we find that the incident was a mere encounter.”

Before the Supreme Court, Cost argued that the officer retaining his ID card while interrogating him constituted a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that was the legal issue the Supreme Court was called upon to decide.

The Court canvassed numerous state and federal courts, noting a “deeply divided” split over whether retaining an ID card constitutes a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. It noted that this case “does not call for us to consider the adoption of a bright-line rule.” Rather, the Court reiterated that courts within the state must engage in a totality-of-the-circumstances inquiry to decide whether a reasonable person would feel “free-to-leave” in determining whether a citizen-police interaction is a mere encounter or an investigative detention. 

Such an inquiry requires courts to examine “all surrounding circumstances evidencing a show of authority or exercise of force, including the demeanor of the police officer, the manner of expression used by the police officer, the manner of expression used by the police in addressing the citizen, and the content of the interrogatories or statements.” Commonwealth v. Mendenhall, 715 A.2d 1117 (Pa. 1998). A request for ID does not automatically transform a mere encounter into an investigative detention. Commonwealth v. Au, 42 A.3d 1002 (Pa. 2012).

Even though Cost’s ID card was held only briefly, a citizen “may not be detained even momentarily without reasonable, objective grounds for doing so,” the Court explained. 

Further, when an officer continues to retain someone’s ID card during questioning, “such treatment of another’s property is a substantial escalating factor in terms of the assertion of authority,” the Court said. After all, “an individual is practically immobilized without adequate identification,” the Court reasoned.

In addition to retaining Cost’s ID card during questioning, the Court cited four other factors that contributed to the finding that he was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes: (1) the announcement of “police” as the officers approached Cost and his friends escalated the incident, (2) the “field interview stance” assumed by the officers implied to the men that they were a “threat,” (3) the questioning of the backpack implied an “authoritative right to know about the content,” and (4) the officer never told Cost what he intended to do with his ID card.

Finding the evidence at the suppression hearing in the light most favorable to Cost (because he was the prevailing party at the hearing), the Court held that a totality of the circumstances review of the facts in this case results in a determination that Cost was subject to “an investigative detention at the relevant time” and “that he was indeed seized.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the superior court. See: Commonwealth v. Cost, 2020 Pa. LEXIS 315 (2020). 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Cost



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