Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York drug possession case discussing the defendant’s motion to suppress. Specifically, the defendant appealed the lower court’s denial of his motion to suppress arguing that the arresting officer’s pat-frisk of the defendant was illegal. Without answering the ultimate question, the appellate court concluded that the trial court failed to engage in the proper inquiry, and sent the case back to the trial court for further analysis.
According to the court’s opinion, a police officer watched as the defendant visited a known drug house. As the defendant left, the officer followed the defendant’s vehicle to “try to get a reason to stop it.” The officer witnessed the defendant make two traffic violations, and pulled him over. As the police officer approached the defendant’s car, he saw the defendant moving around and reaching behind the driver’s seat. The officer removed the defendant, patted him down, and felt what he believed to be narcotics in the defendant’s pants. The officer asked the defendant what he had on him, and the defendant admitted to having seven grams of crack.
The defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance. In a pre-trial motion, the defendant argued that both the crack and his statement to police should be suppressed. However, the trial court found that the officer “had a founded suspicion of criminal activity before the frisk was conducted, thus authorizing the arresting officer to ask the defendant whether he had anything on him.” The trial court denied the defendant’s motion.
On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back for further analysis. The appellate court began by noting that courts are required to determine if police intrusion is justified at each and every stage of the encounter. If police engage in an illegal search of a defendant, they cannot use information obtained through that search to justify further action. This is referred to as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Here, the court held that the lower court erred when it considered only the defendant’s statement to the officer. The court explained that the defendant challenged not only his statement, but the pat-frisk that occurred immediately before the statement was made. If the pat-frisk was illegal, then the statement must also be suppressed because it would be considered the fruit of the poisonous tree. Thus, the court remanded the case back to the trial court so that it could make the appropriate determinations.
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