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Are New York Police Officers Permitted to Assume That a Driver Is the Vehicle’s Registered Owner?

Police officers must have a justifiable reason when they decide to pull over a motorist and initiate a traffic stop. Typically, an officer must have either probable cause or a reasonable suspicion, depending on the surrounding circumstances. When the police pull over a driver without a sufficient reason, anything that an officer finds in a subsequent search of the vehicle is subject to a motion to suppress by a New York criminal lawyer.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that touches on this very issue and can have a dramatic effect on the enforcement of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation in New York.  Specifically, the question that the Court must answer in its upcoming opinion is whether it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle, absent any information to the contrary.  This is critical, when a plate reader mounted on a police car shows that the registered owner of the car has a license that has been suspended or revoked.

The case arose when police officers ran the plates on the defendant’s vehicle. Upon doing so, the officers determined that the registered owner of the vehicle had a suspended license. Assuming that the person driving the car was the vehicle’s registered owner, the police officers pulled over the defendant. The officers confirmed that the defendant was also the registered owner of the vehicle, and they issued him a ticket.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress any evidence obtained during the traffic stop on the basis that it was “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Essentially, the defendant argued that, since the initial traffic stop was bad, everything that flowed from the stop was tainted. The prosecution responded by arguing that, absent any evidence to the contrary, police officers should be able to assume that the driver of a vehicle is the vehicle’s registered owner.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that the police officers’ assumption in this case was not reasonable. On the prosecution’s appeal to the intermediate state appellate court, the decision was reversed. However, when the defendant appealed to the state supreme court, that court sided with the trial court, granting the defendant’s motion. The state supreme court held that allowing police officers to make such an inference would relieve the state of its burden of showing a reasonable suspicion. The state then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On November 4, 2019, the Court heard oral arguments in the case. A written opinion from the Supreme Court is expected sometime in the first half of 2020.

Have You Been Arrested After a New York Traffic Stop?

If you have recently been arrested after police officers pulled over your vehicle or a vehicle in which you were riding as a passenger, you may have a good argument that any evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop should be suppressed. At the New York criminal defense law firm of Tilem & Associates, we represent clients who are facing all types of serious New York felony offenses. We also handle misdemeanor cases and New York traffic tickets. To learn more about how our dedicated team of criminal defense attorneys can help you defend your freedom from the accusations that you are facing, call 877-377-8666 to schedule a free consultation today.

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