New York Traffic Stops in “High Crime” Areas

As we reported in our blog on March 31, 2021, we won a five year battle to get a New York gun charge dismissed based upon an illegal search.  State and federal law as well as the US Constitution provide that all citizens enjoy the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Historically, this meant that police officers needed to obtain a warrant before they conducted any type of search. However, the practicalities of life in the 20th century required the court to create specific exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of the most important exceptions to the general rule requiring a warrant pertains to New York traffic stops.

Over the years, courts have held that automobile stops present certain facts that make it impractical for law enforcement to obtain a warrant. For example, vehicles are mobile, may contain dangerous weapons, and occupants are obscured from police view. Thus, police officers do not need to get a warrant before searching a car in many cases. However, just because they don’t need a warrant doesn’t mean they can search a car for any reason.

Generally, police need to provide justification for any warrantless search. In the case of traffic stops, this requires the officer have probable cause to suspect that the driver or one of the vehicle’s occupants is involved in criminal conduct. Courts rely on several factors when assessing whether an officer had probable cause to search a car including, the occupants’ behavior, any immediately visible evidence of wrongdoing, and whether the traffic stop occurred in a “high crime” area.

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in our New York weapons case arising out of a traffic stop. According to the court’s opinion, officers stopped a car with Massachusetts license plates as it ran through a red light. The defendant was a passenger in the car.

Police testified that, during the stop, the driver of the car followed their commands but appeared nervous. Specifically, officers explained that he was breathing heavily and stammered in providing answers to their questions. Officers then asked if there were any weapons in the car, leading to the discovery of a gun on the defendant.

The defendant challenged the traffic stop, arguing that police lacked reasonable cause to inquire about the presence of weapons in the car. New York Courts have already ruled that mere nervousness is not enough to inquire about weapons or drugs in a car after a routine traffic stop.  The trial court rejected our client’s argument, and he was later convicted. However, on appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s decision. The appellate court agreed with us and held that the mere fact that the traffic stop was in a high crime area did not justify the officer’s actions. The court also noted that the officers’ subjective (and unsubstantiated) belief that out-of-state motorists were more likely to engage in criminal activity was not relevant to the probable-cause determination.

Have You Been Arrested for a New York Gun Crime?

If you are facing a weapons offense in New York, you may be able to challenge the evidence the prosecution plans to use against you. The dedicated criminal defense attorneys at Tilem & Associates possess a deep understanding of state and federal search and seizure laws and use this knowledge to ensure their clients’ rights are upheld at every stage of the process. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, call 877-377-8666 today.

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