New York Court Reverses Robbery Conviction Based on Illegal Arrest and Tainted Identification

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York robbery case involving the defendant’s motion to suppress an identification made by the complaining witness, as well as statements made by the defendant after his arrest. Ultimately, the court held that because the prosecution failed to establish that the defendant’s arrest on an unrelated matter was supported by probable cause, the subsequent identification and statements were “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and must be suppressed.

According to the court’s opinion, a man was robbed in Queens. A day or two after the robbery, the assigned police officer provided the complaining witness with a photo lineup, where he identified the defendant. The officer filled out an identification card, which essentially put other police officers on notice that the defendant should be arrested. Several days later, the assigned officer was informed that the defendant was in custody based on an unrelated matter. The officer brought the complaining witness to the station, where he identified the defendant. The defendant then gave a statement to the police.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the witness’s identification, as well as the statement he made following his arrest. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the “fellow officer rule” justified that defendant’s arrest. Under the fellow officer rule, if an arresting officer lacks probable cause to arrest, the arrest may still be valid if the arresting officer makes the arrest based on communication with a fellow officer who had information justifying the arrest. The defendant was convicted of robbery and appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal, the defendant’s conviction as reversed. The court explained that the “fellow officer” rule was inapplicable in this case because the prosecution failed to explain the circumstances of the defendant’s arrest. The court noted that the assigned officer testified that the defendant was arrested on an “unrelated matter,” but provided no details as to any communication between the assigned police officer and the officer who arrested the defendant on the unrelated matter.

Because the court concluded that the defendant’s arrest was invalid, it also held that the identification was suppressible. Under the doctrine of “fruit of the poisonous tree,” evidence obtained through illegal means cannot be used. Here, the identification evidence was obtained only through the defendant’s wrongful arrest; thus, it must also be suppressed. As a result of the court’s decision, the defendant will receive a new trial as well as an “independent source” hearing to establish whether the identification evidence is otherwise admissible.

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