Can a New York Police Officer Assume the Person Driving a Car Is the Registered Owner?

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme court issued a written opinion in a criminal law case discussing an issue that will become very important in many New York drug possession and firearms cases. The case involved the question as to whether a police officer can reasonably assume that the person who is operating a vehicle is the registered owner of that vehicle. While this inquiry may seem like an unimportant one, in reality, it will have a major impact on motion practice and suppression hearings across the country.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a sheriff deputy ran the license plate on the back of a pick-up truck to find that the registered owner had a revoked license. The deputy pulled the vehicle over, assuming that the registered owner was driving the vehicle. When the deputy discovered that the defendant was indeed the one driving, he cited the defendant.

The defendant filed a motion requesting to suppress all the evidence gathered from the stop, arguing that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion when he decided to pull the defendant over. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, but the appellate court reversed. On appeal to the state’s high court, the case was again reversed, this time in favor of the defendant. That court held that the deputy was acting on a “hunch” when he assumed that the registered owner of the car was the one who was driving it. The prosecution appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court began its analysis by reviewing the relevant standard under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which allows an officer to pull a vehicle over when he has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” This has come to be known as “reasonable suspicion.” The Court acknowledged that a “hunch” does not amount to reasonable suspicion. In determining whether there was a basis for pulling a vehicle over, courts consider the “factual and practical considerations of everyday life.” This means that courts should not apply an overly formal, or legalistic, analysis.

In this case, the Court noted that the deputy knew 1.) someone was driving a pick-up truck, 2.) the owner of that pick-up truck had a revoked license, and 3.) the model listed on the truck’s registration matched what the deputy observed. The Court held that this “provided more than reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.”

In so holding, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the fact that the owner’s license was suspended reduced the chances that it was actually him driving the vehicle. The Court explained that drivers with revoked licenses routinely drive although they shouldn’t. The Court also rejected the argument that the deputy’s observations were not grounded in his professional experience or training, and were more of a gut instinct. In the end, the Court determined that it was reasonable to pull over the defendant, assuming he was the registered owner of the truck.

Have You Been Pulled Over and Arrested in New York?

If you have recently been arrested after police pulled over your vehicle, contact the dedicated New York criminal defense attorneys at Tilem & Associates. At Tilem & Associates, we represent clients facing all types of serious criminal charges, including New York drug crimes, gun offenses, and violent crimes. To learn more about how we can help you defend your freedom against the allegations you are facing, call 877-377-8666 to schedule a free consultation today.

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