New York Criminal Case Highlights Danger of Providing Inconsistent Statements to Police Officers

In a recent criminal case before the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court, the defendant appealed a conviction that he argued was based on an officer’s unlawful search of his vehicle. In the opinion, the court highlighted the defendant’s inconsistent statements to the police officer that searched his car, which ultimately gave the officer reasonable grounds to search the vehicle. Given these inconsistent statements, decided the court, the defendant’s appeal would ultimately be denied.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, an officer on patrol pulled the defendant over one evening through a routine traffic stop. The officer approached the defendant and began speaking with him through the open driver’s side window. At first glance, the officer noticed that the defendant was sitting in a twisted position, and it appeared as if he was trying to hide one side of his body from the officer.

The officer asked a couple of questions, at one point inquiring as to where the defendant was heading. When the defendant then gave inconsistent answers about where he was driving, the officer asked if he could search the defendant’s car. While the opinion did not specify what the officer found in the vehicle, it was certainly enough for the State to criminally charge the defendant. He filed a motion to suppress the incriminating evidence, which the lower court denied.

The Decision

On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer did not actually have grounds to search his vehicle in the first place, thus making any incriminating evidence that he found inadmissible. According to New York law, officers must have at some reason to suspect that criminal activity is afoot before asking for a suspect’s consent to search his or her car. Here, said the defendant, the officer lacked the necessary grounds to conduct the search.

Looking at the facts of the case, however, the higher court disagreed with the defendant. Inconsistent statements alone, said the court, are enough to give an officer a reasonable belief that searching the vehicle is warranted. Here, because the defendant gave inconsistent answers about where he was heading, the officer had the required legal basis to ask if he could look inside the car.

New Yorkers on the road should be mindful of this ruling, given its reminder that fabricating stories or speaking inconsistently can, indeed, give officers reason enough to search your car. The court in this case ultimately denied the defendant’s appeal, and his original conviction remained in place.  While it may not be illegal to lie to the police as shown in this case it can lead to bad results.  Simply refusing to answer the police by politely invoking your 5th Amendment rights is always a better choice.

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