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Monica Yant Kinney: Pa. courts - on whose side?

A 1996 ruling gives fleeing criminals a nonsensical free pass.

In reading my colleagues' damning and depressing series "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied" this week, you might be looking to blame the outgunned Philadelphia District Attorney's Office or crafty defense lawyers for our criminally dysfunctional court system.

This being Pennsylvania, Harrisburg has helped inflict the misery. I'm talking about the state Supreme Court, which more than a decade ago issued a jaw-dropping ruling that has had the net effect of sending countless criminals laughing all the way back to their drug corners.

I don't normally use the column to delve into constitutional law, but this one's worth the brain strain. Especially since the D.A.'s Office filed a brief last week pleading with state Supreme Court members to reconsider their predecessors' utter lack of common sense.

The saga begins in 1991 when two Philadelphia police officers responded to a call about drug dealing near a playground.

As the officers approached, three men took off running. During the chase, Danny Matos threw a plastic bag containing a dozen vials of cocaine. Once they caught him, cops found five more vials in his pocket.

Slam-dunk case, you say? Hardly.

Who wouldn't run?

In 1996, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling creating a bizarre precedent that, in a police encounter, the citizen raising suspicion has a constitutional right to ignore officers' requests, flee and toss contraband if the police officer did not have "reasonable suspicion" to stop him in the first place.

"Reasonable suspicion" takes probable cause to an absurdist end where it's almost impossible for police to question a street thug. Because if they do, and if he runs, the charges won't stick.

"The court wasn't saying that running away isn't suspicious," explains Ronald Eisenberg, head of the appellate unit at the Philadelphia D.A.'s Office. "They're saying if the police try to stop someone without reasonable suspicion, it doesn't count that he runs in response."

For comic relief, consider the court-coined term "forced abandonment." Loosely translated, it means lightening your load of drugs, guns or other no-nos while in flight can't be used against you, because the police made you do it.

(In my notes, I wrote "INSANE.")

Eisenberg, too, puzzles at the ruling that was part of a trend that established new rights for criminals and put Pennsylvania out of step with the rest of the nation.

For drug dealers and other criminals, running becomes the automatic response to the sight of a police cruiser. If lucky, you'll get away; if caught, you'll probably get off.

Given those odds, Eisenberg asks, "Who wouldn't run? You'd have to be an idiot not to."

Time for rethinking

This is how Matos wreaks havoc on city streets and courtrooms:

In 2007, police saw Uman Garvin standing on a West Philadelphia corner for three hours one cold and rainy winter morning.

An officer approached Garvin, told him he wasn't under arrest but asked him to take his hands out of his hoodie as a precaution. Garvin complied, but immediately put his hand back inside his pocket. The requests continued until the officer took a single step forward, at which point Garvin sprinted away.

Hoofing it down an alley, Garvin discarded an Acutec semiautomatic handgun with six live rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. He also dumped two packets of marijuana and three of crack cocaine.

This time, a Common Pleas Court judge ruled that the drugs and gun could be used at trial. Garvin was convicted and sentenced to prison, but appealed, arguing that the police officer's single step turned the mere encounter into an unlawful seizure violating his rights.

The Superior Court agreed citing - you guessed it - Matos.

"We lost a lot of cases following that decision," Eisenberg laments. So many that after Garvin was overturned this fall, Eisenberg filed a motion asking the state's top court to reconsider both cases.

It's about time, wouldn't you say?

"The police conduct discouraged by Matos is conduct we don't want to discourage," Eisenberg concludes. "And the criminal conduct encouraged by Matos is conduct we don't want to encourage."

Now, if only seven justices in Harrisburg will see the damage done. The bad guys have had their day in court for far too long.