Police officers routinely engage in extended roadside questioning during traffic stops. The tactic, designed to goad drivers into divulging information that might lead to other potential offenses, is under increasing scrutiny in Pennsylvania. A three-judge state appellate panel decided earlier this month that officers may not start a second round of roadside questioning after telling a motorist that he is free to go.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, the equivalent of the court of appeals in other states, took up the case of Tam Thanh Ngyuen who had been pulled over at around 3am on January 4, 2012. Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Jared Bromberg says that after he paced Ngyuen’s black Mercedes at 73 MPH on Interstate 95, he turned on his siren and ordered Ngyuen to pull to the side of the road.
Ngyuen was nervous and, according to the trooper, he “talked too much.” For Trooper Bromberg, this was evidence that Ngyuen was a drug dealer. So he decided to write the suspect a warning. He told Ngyuen that he was free to go, but instead of ending the interaction, the trooper turned around and began a second round of questioning about why he was nervous and where he was headed.
After a few minutes of discussion, the trooper asked for permission to search Ngyuen’s Mercedes. The motorist consented, and when he got out of his car, the trooper frisked him for weapons. This turned up a Ziploc bag of OxyContin pills and $1058 in cash. More drugs were found in the car.