The New York and federal constitutions provide fundamental rights to all citizens. Among the most important are those contained in the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment generally protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Historically, this meant that police officers needed to obtain a warrant before searching a person, their belongings, or a place in which the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a home. The Exclusionary Rule prohibits the introduction into evidence and the use in Court of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
However, over the years, courts realized that the warrant requirement was overly burdensome on law enforcement and created exceptions to the warrant requirement. For example, police officers who observed a crime occurring can arrest the person suspected of committing the crime and then conduct a limited search incident to that arrest. Of course, there are limits on the scope of a search incident to an arrest; one of which involves police officers searching a closed container after a lawful arrest.
A recent case illustrates how the plain view doctrine can play out. According to the court’s opinion, a defendant was arrested for criminal possession of a forged instrument. After arresting the defendant, the arresting officer pulled out a manila envelope from the defendant’s pocket. The envelope was closed, and the contents were not visible. However, the police officer opened the envelop enough to peek inside. Inside the envelope, the officer found additional incriminating evidence.
The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence found in the envelope. The trial court rejected the defendant’s motion, and a jury convicted him. The defendant appealed.
On appeal, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction, finding that by removing the envelope from the defendant’s pocket and looking inside, the officer’s search extended beyond the permissible scope of a search incident to an arrest. The court explained that, without more evidence that there is contraband present, police officers cannot search closed containers. Instead, the officer should have sought a warrant.
Although the court did not elaborate on its decision, the reasoning behind the prohibition of searching closed containers is that there is no exigency. In other words, police officers already had the defendant in custody, and they could have very easily confiscated the envelope, applied for a warrant, and, if one was issued, then searched inside the envelope.
Search and seizure law is quite complex and not always intuitive. Thus, anyone facing criminal charges who believes the government will try to introduce evidence obtained during their arrest should reach out to a dedicated New York criminal defense attorney.
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