In a recent New York criminal case, the defendant successfully filed a motion to suppress physical evidence. The defendant was charged with robbery in the second degree, robbery in the third degree, grand larceny in the fourth degree (five counts), criminal possession of stolen property in the fourth degree (four counts), criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree (two counts), criminal mischief in the fourth degree, possession of burglar’s tools (three counts), obstructing governmental administration in the second degree, resisting arrest, unlawful fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle in the third degree, reckless driving, failing to comply with a police officer’s direction, failing to stop at a steady red signal, driving a vehicle on the left side of no-passing markers, failing to signal, driving in excess of the maximum speed limit, and operating a motor vehicle without a license.
In the appeal, the defendant argued that was subjected to an unconstitutional search and seizure during the frisk performed by an officer, when the officer removed a wallet from the defendant’s pocket, and again when the contents of the wallet were searched. As a result, the defendant argues that the wallet and its contents should be suppressed at trial. The appeals court granted his motion, vacating 14 of his counts, and ordering a new trial on those counts.
Facts of the Case
According to the opinion, police officers arrived at the scene of a reported robbery after the defendant allegedly confronted the complainant, claiming to have a weapon, and took the complainant’s wallet. When the police arrived, the defendant allegedly fled on foot, before entering a car and was later apprehended by police officers. The defendant was handcuffed, and a wallet was removed from his pocket. A police officer examined the contents of the wallet and determined that it was the complainant’s wallet. The defendant’s car was identified by police because as he allegedly entered the car, an officer broke the back window of the car so as to make it easier to identify the vehicle, and subsequently reported the vehicle information over the radio. After the defendant was apprehended, he was frisked to ensure officer safety, and the wallet was recovered.
The defendant argued primarily that he was subjected to an unconstitutional search and seizure during the frisk performed by the officer, when the officer removed the wallet from the defendant’s pocket, and again when the contents of the wallet were searched. The defendant contends that while a police officer who has detained a person is entitled to frisk the person’s outer clothing for weapons “if the officer reasonably suspects that he [or she] is in danger of physical injury by virtue of the detainee being armed,” the officer “may intrude upon the person or personal effects of the suspect only to the extent that is actually necessary to protect himself [or herself] from harm while he [or she] conducts the inquiry.” As a result, by confiscating and searching the wallet during the frisk performed by the officer, the search went beyond the necessary steps to protect himself against harm, lacking the factual predicate necessary to search the defendant’s pocket and the wallet’s contents. Subsequently, the appeals court held that the prosecution failed to satisfy their burden of going forward to establish the legality of the police conduct in the first instance, and thus the wallet and its contents, seized as a result of that search, should have been suppressed.
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