Ruling hobbles task forces

Supreme Court decision puts hold on officers outside their jurisdictions

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on the ability of officers with task forces to enforce the law outside their jurisdictions will temporarily put a hold on local police conducting DUI checkpoints and leaves questions about how it will impact the Blair County Drug Task Force.

The Supreme Court ruled on May 31 in Commonwealth v. Hlubin that in order for municipal police officers to enforce the law outside their primary jurisdiction as part of a DUI task force, it must have been approved by the elected officials of the municipality and not simply through an agreement between department chiefs or municipal managers.

The ruling came from an Allegheny County DUI case involving a woman who encountered a Moon Township police officer at a checkpoint in Robinson Township after leaving the the Key Bank Pavilion concert venue in 2013 and addresses how the Inter­governmental Cooperation Act and the Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act play into the workings of a DUI task force made up of officers from multiple jurisdictions working a checkpoint outside their municipalities.

At the heart of the court case was the argument that the Moon Township police officer was out of his jurisdiction and so any evidence that came from his encounter with the woman that ultimately led to her conviction for DUI had to be suppressed because it violated the act governing police jurisdictions where police can act outside their municipalities in only a limited number of situations.

The court ruled in the woman’s favor, and indicated participation in the task force has to be established through an ordinance. Until the organizers of the Blair County DUI Task Force can sort though the details of how it was organized to determine if it passes muster with the court’s ruling, DUI checkpoints by municipal officers are on hold, task force spokesman Sheriff James Ott said last week.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any DUI enforcement efforts by the Blair County DUI Task Force, Ott said, while also pointing out the state police can conduct checkpoints in any jurisdiction in Pennsylvania.

“What we’re doing in Blair County, we’re going to stick to roving patrols,” Ott said, “until we can get some clear direction as far as the checkpoints.”

Blair County First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks said plans for a meeting about the DUI task force are in the works and even with the ruling, he believes area police can still do some enforcement until the necessary steps are taken to address any changes to the current set-up that need to be taken.

Regardless, Weeks said the impact of the ruling will likely have little impact on any previous cases, unlike U.S. Supreme Court’s Birchfield decision in 2016 that said warrantless breath tests were allowed while blood tests were not in DUI cases. Going forward, if addressing the Hlubin issue is a matter of getting the proper ordinances in place, then it will be a relatively simple fix that might take a few months given the process that entails, Weeks said.

When asked if the ruling could also impact the Blair County Drug Task Force, Weeks said the Blair County District Attorneys Office has contacted the state Attorney General’s Office — under which the task force operates — and is awaiting direction as to any corrective action that might need to be taken.

Weeks said if the ruling does impact the drug task force, it’s a correctable issue.

“We are aware of the Supreme Court’s decision and its unintended consequences and have reviewed it carefully,” Attorney Josh Shapiro’s spokesman Joe Grace said late last week when asked about the issue. “We’re considering any appropriate steps to protect our ability for law enforcement to continue collaborating on the federal, state and local level to combat the opioid epidemic across Pennsylvania.”

Grace did not address the question on the short-term status of the task force in light of the ruling, particularly any out-of-jurisdiction controlled buys of drugs by the task force’s primary narcotics investigators — the Altoona police.

Attorney Dan Kiss said the result of the ruling is that evidence can be suppressed if an officer is working outside his or her jurisdiction when the situation doesn’t fit the enumerated exceptions to the law regarding police jurisdictions — such as if there is a pursuit. The court ruled a DUI checkpoint doesn’t meet those exceptions and Kiss said that could translate to other police operations involving multiple municipal agencies.

“It is an open question if this would affect other avenues of police cooperation across jurisdiction lines — including traffic details and drug investigations,” Kiss said.

Attorney Thomas Dickey pointed out that while it is a technical legal issue, it comes down to fundamental concepts that deal with arrest powers and police accountability.

By having the participation a DUI task force contingent upon an ordinance by elected officials as opposed to merely a decision by a police chief or manager, the court is upholding the Municipal Police Juris­diction Act’s “ultimate goal of providing police accountability to local authority,” Dickey explained.

He said the ruling is a “welcomed recognition that the courts are still reviewing the uses of power and the power of arrest,” Dickey said, noting technicalities ultimately come down to checks and balances that protect the peoples’ rights.

“Technicalities have to be upheld and enforced or otherwise they will continue to whittle away at the rights of people,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.