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NEW YORK SEARCH AND SEIZURE – POLICE MAY REQUEST LICENSE AND PEDIGREE INFORMATION FROM PERSON IN DRIVER’S SEAT OF A VEHICLE PARKED IN FRONT OF A FIRE HYDRANT

In a case involving a New York City drug case, the Appellate Division held that a police officer may request the driver’s license and pedigree of an individual sitting in the driver’s seat of a vehicle parked in front of a fire hydrant. People v. Thomas, 19 A.D.3d 32, 792 N.Y.S.2d 472 (1st 2005).
In Thomas, the police approached a defendant who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a vehicle parked in front of a fire hydrant and asked him for his license and pedigree information. A computer check indicated that defendant’s license was suspended and he was then arrested. Upon searching his pockets, the police found “crack” cocaine. Defendant was subsequently charged with Aggravated Unlicensed Operation in the Third Degree (VTL § 511(1)(a)) and Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Fifth Degree (Penal Law § 220.06).
In granting the defendant’s motion and suppressing the drug evidence, the Honorable William A. Wetzel of the New York County Supreme Court found, and I believe correctly, that by stopping his police van so as to block in defendant’s vehicle, the officer had in fact “stopped” defendant. Because J. Wetzel found the police conduct constituted a “stop”, the police needed probable cause. Noting that VTL § 1202(3)(b) permits parking in front of a fire hydrant provided a licensed driver is in the driver’s seat, J. Wetzel held that the officer did not have probable cause to suspect a traffic infraction had occurred (this is obvious because the officer would have had no way of knowing the driver’s license status).
In reversing, the First Department held that the blocking of the vehicle was not a “stop” and therefore the officer did not need probable cause/reasonable suspicion but instead only needed an objective, credible reason not necessarily indicative of criminality to make was is referred to as a Level I “Request for Information”. Of key importance was the Court’s finding that the “blocking in” of an already parked vehicle is not a seizure. The Court agreed that had the vehicle been moving, however, the officer would have needed probable cause to stop it.
If you have been charged with any offense in New York from a simple traffic infraction to a misdemeanor or serious felony, one of the first lines of defense is challenging the legality of the police officer’s initial stop (seizure) of you or your motor vehicle. For more information call Tilem & Campbell toll free at 1-877-377-8666 or visit us on the web at www.tilemandcampbell.com.