The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. The Constitution prohibits law enforcement officers and other government agents from conducting an illegal search or seizure of persons or property in furtherance of a criminal investigation or prosecution. New York’s state Constitution contains similar provisions. Generally, these Constitutional protections require law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant before performing a search of a person or their vehicle. The warrant requirement does contain exceptions, which allow police officers to perform a search when there is probable cause that evidence of a crime will be found, or for certain safety purposes. The Appellate Division recently reversed a defendant’s burglary conviction which was based upon the fruits of a warrantless search that the trial court had determined to be legally sufficient under an exception to the warrant requirement.
The defendant in the recently decided case was operating a vehicle when he was stopped for a traffic violation. The responding officers testified that they recognized the defendant and his vehicle from a “wanted poster” and an “I-card” that had been distributed to law enforcement after a string of burglaries were reported in the area. The defendant was taken into custody based on his reported description. Police then searched the vehicle and found a backpack which contained property that had been reported stolen in the alleged burglaries. Based on this evidence, the defendant was charged with burglary. Before trial, the defendant moved the court to suppress the physical evidence obtained in the traffic stop, arguing that the police did not have probable cause to search the vehicle based only on the description evidence they knew of at the time of the stop. The defendant’s motion was denied and he was convicted of the charges after a trial.
The defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his suppression motion, and the appellate division ultimately reversed his conviction. The trial court’s reliance on the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement had not been affirmatively argued by the prosecutors before the conviction, and the trial judge’s application of such an exception to deny the defendant’s motion, while not expressly forbidden, was not supported by any evidence on the record when considering all of the circumstances. Because the prosecutors elicited no evidence in support of the trial judge’s reasoning for the denial of the motion, the decision could not stand. As a result of the appellate division ruling, the defendant may not face a conviction for the charges brought against him.