Written by Gregory Monte.
NOTE #1: Please check out the end of this post for my interactions with a reader who disagreed with my interpretation of this issue.
NOTE #2 (11/25/19): I just found another case which contradicts the original conclusion of this blog post: Com. v. Gommer, 665 A. 2d 1269 – Pa: Superior Court 1995. Because it is more recent and involves the Superior Court, it holds more weight. Here is what the decision said: “Upon careful reading of the statutes, we find no explicit limitation of the authority of a state police officer to make a traffic stop or arrest only when the officer is on duty and/or in uniform.”
Every so often I like to point out how Pennsylvania does much more than other states to protect its citizens from overuse (abuse?) of police power. Here are some of the blog posts which dealt with this topic:
Pennsylvania Protects Its Citizens
Well, as I was looking through the PA Code this morning, I found yet another protection. A police officer cannot give you a speeding ticket if he is out of uniform. Pennsylvania Title 75, Section 6304(a) states very specifically:
“A member of the Pennsylvania State Police who is in uniform may arrest without a warrant any person who violates any provision of this title in the presence of the police officer making the arrest.”
As for other police officers, they have the same requirement as per 6304(b):
“Any police officer who is in uniform may arrest without a warrant any nonresident who violates any provision of this title in the presence of the police officer making the arrest.”
I always like to make sure that I have judicial “backing” when I make a claim about traffic enforcement, so I found a court case which supports my interpretation of this section of the law:
“The issue presented is whether a non-uniformed state police officer has authority to make a stop of a motorist for speeding under the present circumstances, and then to detain that individual for a brief period of time in order that a uniformed officer can arrive and issue the citation … We agree with defendant that his detention was an arrest in violation of 75 Pa.C.S. § 6304. The commonwealth has cited no authority which creates an exception to the requirement that the officer making the arrest for a traffic summary offense must be in uniform, nor have we found any such authority. Therefore, we reverse defendant’s summary conviction and vacate the sentence of the district justice.”
Other States … Not So Much …
I didn’t take the time to read every state’s procedure about the ability of a non-uniformed officer to arrest, but here is a short list of what I did find out. None of these states have the protection given to PA citizens. If you have information about any other state not included here, I would be interested in knowing about it.
“Subject to the provisions of subdivision two, a police officer may arrest a person for: (a) Any offense when he or she has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in his or her presence …”
“A peace officer may arrest … without a warrant, may arrest a person whenever any of the following circumstances occur: (1) The officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense in the officer’s presence.”
New Jersey doesn’t even require the offense be witnessed by the officer. 2009 New Jersey Code, Title 39, 39:5-25:
“A law enforcement officer may arrest without a warrant any person who the officer has probable cause to believe has operated a motor vehicle in violation of R.S.39:4-50 or section 5 of P.L. 1990, c. 103 (C.39:3-10.13), regardless of whether the suspected violation occurs in the officer’s presence.”
Florida Title XLVII, Chapter 901.15:
“A law enforcement officer may arrest a person without a warrant when: (1) The person has committed a felony or misdemeanor or violated a municipal or county ordinance in the presence of the officer. An arrest for the commission of a misdemeanor or the violation of a municipal or county ordinance shall be made immediately or in fresh pursuit.”
“Such officers may arrest without a warrant any person who commits any crime in the presence of the officer and any person whom he has reasonable grounds or probable cause to suspect of having committed a felony not in his presence.”
Interaction with a Reader
I have separated the reader’s comments and mine so you can follow the train of thought.
You pa officer can not arrest out of uniform. You are confusing arrest which is taking into custody to see a judge versus issuing a citation which is technically not an “arrest”
I am a retired officer and could file a traffic citation for an on view offense even when I was not on duty and out of uniform. It was not an arrest. The section you referring to is usually when it is someone from out of state or the police officer does not know or have a confirmed identity of them, they are taken into custody to see the judge and verify their identity and post bond to assure an appearance at trail.
OK thanks for your input. I concluded in that last post that the law is unclear because Rule 440 Criminal Procedure contradicts the Motor Vehicle statute. But I see your point about the difference between an arrest and issuing a citation. My confusion is what is the difference exactly? If an officer detains a citizen in order to issue a citation isn’t that considered an arrest?
If you look at the notes “The Vehicle Code provides the procedures for arresting a defendant without a warrant for a summary offense under that Code.” this shows that this rule does not apply to title 75.You also should probably read https://www.pacode.com/secure/data/234/chapter4/s400.html
But Section 6304 of the Vehicle code does apply according to the judge in Commonwealth v. Weston, 3 Pa. D. & C. 4th 411 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas 1989
“The issue presented is whether a non-uniformed state police officer has authority to make a stop of a motorist for speeding under the present circumstances, and then to detain that individual for a brief period of time in order that a uniformed officer can arrive and issue the citation … We agree with defendant that his detention was an arrest in violation of 75 Pa.C.S. § 6304. The commonwealth has cited no authority which creates an exception to the requirement that the officer making the arrest for a traffic summary offense must be in uniform, nor have we found any such authority. Therefore, we reverse defendant’s summary conviction and vacate the sentence of the district justice.” Which is why I am wondering if there is a difference between merely issuing a citation and detaining a citizen in order to issue a citation.
I think the key takeaway was the following “We agree with defendant that his detention was an arrest ” If he would have released the driver and filed a citation it would have been good. When you detain and arrest it becomes a higher standard needed to support what you are doing.
What you say makes sense. So would you agree that a police officer out of uniform cannot stop a speeding car and issue a ticket on the spot? For that matter, if a car goes through a red light, a non-uniformed officer cannot flag down the car to issue a ticket because that would be a detention (arrest) of sorts.
No, I believe they can stop and issue, if they detain for an unreasonable time (in that case it would be the time in addition to how long it would take to give out the citation, or get the info on the driver to file later, and/or arrest that would be when they violate that case.
Interesting perspective. I will have to find some other cases in PA where the length of the detention time is mentioned in order to clarify this issue. In the Weston case, above, the non-uniformed officer detained for 15 minutes.