Com v. Yong: Collective Knowledge Doctrine Affirmed
When two police officers independently have the information necessary to constitute probable cause, but they have not communicated these facts to each other, is the arrest of the defendant constitutional? The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania says yes, in a 4-2 ruling in Commonwealth v. Yong.
Mr. Yong’s suspected drug dealing in Philadelphia (home of the World Champions) was the subject of surveillance by the Philadelphia Police in 2011. During that time, he was observed by Officers McCook and Morales conducting marijuana transactions. The record reveals that Officer McCook “met up with . . . other officers” and “brief[ed] them on the execution of the search warrant.” One of these other officers was Officer Gibson, who arrested Yong during the search and discovered a gun on his person. Marijuana was recovered in substantial amounts from the premises, and Yong was charged with various drug related crimes.
The collective knowledge doctrine allows officers to have the knowledge of other police officers “imputed” to them for Fourth Amendment purposes. Two approaches have been adopted by courts: vertical and horizontal. The vertical approach involves a situation where an officer with probable cause orders another officer to act (“Arrest that man!”). Courts have broadly ruled this this situation imputes probable cause. The horizontal approach is the controversial one—can a group of officers, each of whom holds a piece of the puzzle, be rendered a unit for the purpose of probable cause?
Majority by Mundy: Officer with Probable Cause may impute his knowledge to another Officer
Justice Mundy, writing for the 4-member majority, writes that the knowledge of a police officer with probable cause may be imputed to the arresting officer under the collective knowledge doctrine if they “are working in a coordinated investigation and not as independent law enforcement personnel . . . coincidentally.” Noting that there are “serious concerns for protecting citizens from unconstitutional intrusions,” the majority rejects the horizontal approach, but finds that a vertical approach is supported by the facts of this case.
The majority places particular weight on the pre-search briefing that took place. Surely there was communication of probable cause at that time, or at the very least, an order to arrest Yong if he was seen. Accordingly, the majority has no qualms that an illegal search took place here. “[W]e maintain that Pennsylvania adheres to the vertical approach of the collective knowledge doctrine, which instructs that an officer with the requisite level of suspicion may direct another officer to act in his or her stead.”
Dissent by Donohue: Proof of Communication should be Required for Vertical Approach
Justice Donohue dissents, accusing the majority of “announc[ing] a new rule that permits uncommunicated knowledge of one police officer to justify an arrest conducted by another officer.” Donohue would require evidence of actual communication, not imputed authority.
Conclusion: An Odd Vehicle for this Holding
Appellate courts traditionally look for good “vehicles” to resolve major issues of law. In other words, they prefer cases that cleanly present the issue. In this case, the Court, having found vertical collective knowledge, need not have made any determination on the horizontal approach. Clearly, the Court was eager to provide guidance on this, and to some extent, it is appreciated by practitioners at the criminal bar. Nonetheless, the Court usually tries to take cases where an analysis can take place without leaving the facts at hand, which did not happen here.