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New Your Court of Appeals Discusses the Standard Required for an Officer to Make a Traffic Stop

A state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York gun possession case, last month,  requiring the court to determine if the police officers were justified in stopping the defendant’s vehicle for a traffic violation. Ultimately, the court concluded that the officer lacked any basis to believe that a crime had occurred and there was no probable cause to stop the vehicle. Thus, the court held the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been granted and suppressed the firearm.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a state trooper ran the tags on the defendant’s vehicle. The response was: “CONFIRM RECORD WITH ORIGINATOR ** THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN REPORTED AS AN IMPOUNDED VEHICLE —IT SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS A STOLEN VEHICLE HIT — NO FURTHER ACTION SHOULD BE TAKEN BASED SOLELY UPON THIS IMPOUNDED RESPONSE **”

The trooper pulled the defendant over and, as he approached the vehicle, noticed a smell of marijuana and a burnt marijuana joint in the car. The defendant told the trooper that the car had previously been reported stolen, which may explain the message. The trooper searched both the defendant and the car, recovering marijuana and a loaded firearm under the driver’s seat.

In a pre-trial motion to suppress, the trooper explained that he took the information he received when running the plates to mean the car could be stolen. He acknowledged that the message was the only reason he stopped the defendant. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and the intermediate appellate court affirmed. The defendant appealed to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court’s Analysis

On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts’ decision to deny the defendant’s motion. The court explained that there are only three reasons a law enforcement officer can stop a car.

  1. Based on probable cause that the driver committed a traffic violation;
  2. Based on a reasonable suspicion that the driver (or an occupant) was involved in criminal activity; or
  3. When conducting nondiscriminatory, nonarbitrary checkpoints.

Here, the court noted that the trooper candidly admitted that there was no other basis for stopping the defendant other than the response from the license plate inquiry. The message returned from the inquiry, the court held, did not give rise to probable cause that the defendant had committed a traffic violation. The court explained that, by stopping the defendant on the basis of the message, the trooper ruled out other innocent – and equally plausible – explanations for what the message meant.

As a result of the court’s opinion, the defendant’s motion was granted and the case will most likely be withdrawn, as neither the drugs more the gun will be admissible at trial.

Have You Been Arrested after a Questionable Traffic Stop?

If you are facing serious criminal allegations after being arrested during a New York traffic stop, contact a dedicated criminal defense attorney at Tilem & Associates for immediate assistance. At Tilem & Associates, we represent clients who have been charged with all types of crimes, including New York gun crimes, drug offenses, and more. To schedule a free consultation with an attorney today, call 877-377-8666.

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