Recently, the New York Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest Court, issued an opinion, in a New York gun case, which reversed a lower court’s denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence a gun. The case arose after a police officer stopped the vehicle the defendant was traveling in after his patrol car’s mobile data terminal (MDT) notified him of a “similarity hit.” In response to the similarity hit, the police officer stopped the vehicle and noticed a handgun on the floor in front of the seat the defendant was occupying. The police officer arrested the defendant, even though the car was not registered to him, and he did not have a warrant. At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence that the police officer obtained from the stop.
The police officer testified that it was part of his “routine” conduct to enter license plates into his car’s MDT. In some cases, such as the one at hand, a similarity hit will occur, which notifies an officer that there is a similarity between a person with a warrant and a vehicle’s registered owner. The officer explained that the MDT generates these similarity hits based on the registered owner’s name, date of birth, and aliases. He further testified that he believes that the MDT generates hits based on parameters he was unaware of. In this case, the officer received a similarity hit, and without any other information, he pulled the car over. The officer admitted that after pulling the car over, he did not believe the driver was the subject of the warrant because the driver was female and the subject of the similarity hit, the registered owner, was a male. After discovering the gun and arresting the defendant, he realized that the individual with the warrant did not match anyone in the vehicle, or the car’s registered owner. The defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the stop was based on the factual sufficiency of the basis of the stop.
Under New York law, if the state faces a sufficiency challenge, they must present evidence to establish that the stop was lawful. Generally, courts hold that vehicle stops are lawful if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle’s driver or occupants have committed or are in the process of committing a crime. However, the state must point to specific facts, in conjunction with logical deductions, that point to the stop’s lawfulness. In most cases, reasonable suspicion inquiries are a question of law and fact. However, in cases such as this, the question is whether the state’s evidence meets the “minimum showing”, and is, therefore, a question of law.