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NEW YORK SEARCH & SEIZURE – POLICE MAY NOT STOP AN INDIVIDUAL SOLELY BECAUSE HE IS THE SAME RACE A SUSPECT

In New York, a stop of a vehicle on a public roadway is a seizure and must be based upon reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. People v. Ingle, 36 N.Y.2d 413, 369 N.Y.S.2d 67 (1975). Many times, a vehicle stop is made because the vehicle or its occupants match the description of a suspect wanted in connection with an offense. But what if the only identifying feature known about the suspect is his or her race? Is it enough to stop an individual simply because his or her race matches that of a wanted suspect?

The answer is no. Many times race does play a role in the determination of reasonable suspicion, since witnesses and victims will often describe suspects by their skin color. (see, generally, Johnson, Race and the Decision to Detain a Suspect, 93 Yale LJ 214). A suspect’s race is “a characteristic which may properly be used as one element of identification”. Franklin v State, 374 So 2d 1151, 1154 (Fla). Indeed, race is “an identifying factor which . . .assists the police in narrowing the scope of their identification procedure.” United States v Collins, 532 F2d 79.

A person’s race, however, cannot serve as the sole basis for reasonable suspicion. The New York Court of Appeals has held that ethnic identity alone is an insufficient basis upon which to premise reasonable suspicion. People v George T., 39 N.Y.2d 1028 (1976). Therefore, it is improper for the police to stop someone simply because they are the same race as the suspect even where an individual of one race is seen is a neighborhood inhabited primarily by members of another race. People v. George T. supra.

If you have been charged with any offense in New York and feel the reason the police stopped you was because of your race, evidence seized as a result of that stop may be suppressed. In other words, it may not be allowed to be used against you at trial. For more information, feel free to contact Tilem & Campbell toll free at 1-877-377-8666 or visit us on the web at www.tilemandcampbell.com.