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Superior Court Clarifies the “Collective Knowledge Doctrine”

Cynthia Caul

In a thoughtful opinion issued last week, Judge Wecht clarified the scope of the “collective knowledge doctrine” in Pennsylvania.  The case is titled Commonwealth v. Yong, -- A.3d --, 2015 WL 4366472 (Pa. Super. July 16, 2015). 

 Under the collective knowledge doctrine, “[w]hen a police officer instructs or requests another officer to make an arrest, the arresting officer stands in the shoes of the instructing officer and shares in his or her knowledge.”  Thus, when the ‘instructing officer’ possesses sufficient probable cause to arrest, her knowledge is imputed to the arresting officer acting at her direction, and the arrest is lawful. 

 Yong is significant because it explains the collective knowledge doctrine’s limits.  In Yong, the Philadelphia Police obtained a warrant to search a home for drugs.  When the Police executed the warrant, they found Mr. Yong inside.  Philadelphia Officer Gibson immediately arrested Mr. Yong.  During a search incident to arrest, Officer Gibson recovered a firearm. 

 One of the other officers who executed the warrant – Officer McCook – possessed sufficient knowledge to trigger probable cause to arrest Mr. Yong.  Officer Gibson, however, did not.  At the suppression hearing, moreover, the Commonwealth offered no evidence to show that Officer McCook instructed Officer Gibson to arrest Mr. Yong.

 Mr. Yong moved to suppress the firearm, alleging that his arrest was unlawful because Officer Gibson did not possess probable cause to arrest him.  The trial court denied Mr. Yong’s motion.  Mr. Yong appealed

 In the Superior Court, the Commonwealth argued that “Officer McCook’s knowledge of Yong’s participation in [an] earlier drug transaction was imputed to Officer Gibson under the ‘collective knowledge doctrine.’”  Thus, according to the Commonwealth, the arrest was indeed supported by probable cause. 

 The Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth’s proposed expansion of the collective knowledge doctrine and reversed.  In doing so, the Court emphasized that, at the suppression hearing, the Commonwealth failed to establish that Officer Gibson arrested Mr. Yong at Officer McCook’s direction.  Consequently, the collective knowledge doctrine did not apply.