When Decisions Matter.

Image: Police Car for Sobriety checkpoints

A Sobering Decision

On May 31, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a decision invalidating an arrest obtained at a multi-municipal task force sobriety check point.  The issue before the Court was under what statutory authority a task force police officer had to make an arrest that was outside of the officer’s primary policing jurisdiction.

In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Molly Hlubin, the PA Supreme Court considered the interplay between the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act (“ICA”) and the Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act (“MPJA”).  The arrest made at a sobriety check point in Robinson Township, Allegheny County, was conducted by a task force that included police officers from a number of municipalities operating outside of their primary jurisdiction.

The Defendant argued that the officer did not have the authority to arrest her because his primary policing jurisdiction was outside of Robinson Township.  The Commonwealth argued that either the ICA or MPJA provided the authority for the arrest.

Did the Task Force Municipalities Comply with the ICA?

The Court did acknowledge that multiple municipalities may authorize a joint task force for a sobriety checkpoint if properly approved under the ICA.  The ICA requires an Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement to be approved by ordinance by every participating municipality.  The ordinance adopted by the governing body of a local government entering into an intergovernmental cooperation arrangement must address seven specific statutory elements.

In this case, the best the participating municipalities could show was that the Robinson Township Manager signed a resolution generally authorizing participation in the task force.  Given the fact that there was neither an ordinance passed by the task force municipalities complying with the ICA statutory requirements nor an intergovernmental agreement, the Court determined that the officer was not properly empowered pursuant to the ICA.

Did the MPJA Empower the Police Officer to Make the Arrest?

Because the efforts of the task force were not authorized by the ICA, the police officer was required to be authorized to act outside the territorial limits of his primary jurisdiction under the MPJA.  The MPJA provides six exceptions to the general rule which limits a police officer’s power and authority beyond the territorial limits of his department.  The Commonwealth argued that Subsection 8953(a)(3) of the MPJA provided such authority.  This exception authorizes a municipal police officer to operate outside of his primary jurisdiction when “the officer has been required to aid or assist any local, state or federal law enforcement officer or park police officer or otherwise has probable cause to believe that the other officer is in need of aid or assistance.”  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court broke down the provisions of Subsection 8953(a)(3).  The Court determined that the Commonwealth’s interpretation, which would permit police officers to cross jurisdictional lines in response to any request for aid or assistance, including those unrelated to any particular criminal activity, was so broad that it essentially eliminated local government bodies from the decision-making process with respect to the deployment of police officers within their employment.  Therefore, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that Subsection 8953(a)(3) did not authorize police officers to cross jurisdictional lines to participate in pre-arranged sobriety check-points.

Best Practice Takeaway

All municipalities and police departments should take note of this decision.  If there is a desire to participate in multi-municipal sobriety check points, every participating municipality must approve an intergovernmental agreement by ordinance prior to the operation.  Furthermore, if there are other pre-arranged task forces that a police department wishes to participate in, the municipality should analyze the manner in which police officers are engaged in cross-jurisdictional policing to determine whether an exception contained within the MPJA would apply.  If no exception applies, the activity should be approved by an ordinance authorizing entry into an intergovernmental agreement for such activities in accordance with the ICA.

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