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Detectives searched man on 'no more than a hunch,' Pa. court rules

Two Lebanon County Drug Task Force detectives were operating on a mere “hunch” when they searched a man and found a marijuana joint in his pocket, a state Superior Court panel has concluded.

And because reasonable suspicion was lacking for the January 2015 stop and search of Daniel Maldonado, a Lebanon County judge was right to prevent prosecutors from using the evidence the detectives found, the state judges ruled.

The fact that the detectives are experienced investigators who believed they saw signs of illegal drug activity in Maldonado’s actions doesn’t trump the need to have legal justification for a search, President Judge Emeritus John Bender wrote in the Superior Court’s recent opinion.

Maldonado’s arrest stemmed from an encounter he had with the detectives in broad daylight. The officers saw him get in and out of a car in a high crime area at North Ninth and Crowell streets, became suspicions and approached him.

The officers said they identified themselves and displayed their badges. Maldonado told them he was just out getting some fresh air. The detectives said Maldonado consented to be searched, although Maldonado said he was searched without his permission.

The joint was found inside a cigarette pack in one of Maldonado’s pockets, the detectives said. He was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.

When Maldonado challenged his stop and search, county Judge Charles T. Jones found that it wasn’t legally justified and ordered the evidence against him suppressed. The district attorney’s office appealed to the state judges.

Bender agreed with Jones. He found that Maldonado “was subject to an investigative detention requiring reasonable suspicion, that such suspicion was lacking and that any consent (for a search) given…was vitiated by the taint of that illegal detention.”

In short, Bender concluded Maldonado had done nothing to warrant the officers’ contact with him.

“The fact that this occurred in a high crime area does not render otherwise innocuous facts into evidence of criminal activity,” he wrote. “The detectives’ assumption that criminal activity occurred…was no more than a hunch.”

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