One of the first lines of defense in any New York criminal case involving evidence found during a car stop is whether the search of the car was constitutional. In New York, where a vehicle is stopped for a traffic infraction, it is improper for the police to ask for consent to search the vehicle. This rule has been strictly construed by New York courts with one Appellate Court going so far as to suppress a body found in the back of a vehicle stopped for a traffic infraction because the police had no basis to ask for consent to search.
In People v. Turriago, 219 A.D.2d 383 (1st Dept. 1996), the defendant’s vehicle was stopped for speeding by State Troopers on Rt. 17 in Orange County. The Troopers, concerned about illegal hunting, asked defendant for consent to search the vehicle which defendant gave. The police subsequently found the body of a murder victim in the rear of the vehicle. In seeking to suppress the body and other evidence (statements and evidence found during a search of defendant’s apartment), the defendant argued that whether he gave consent was irrelevant because the Troopers had no right to seek his consent to search in the first instance.
The First Department agreed holding that while the Troopers had a valid reason to stop the vehicle, nothing transpired during the stop to justify a suspicion that criminal activity was afoot which was necessary to trigger the Trooper’s common law right to inquire thus justifying a request for consent to search. The First Department therefore, reversed the lower court and held that the body, statements and evidence found as a result of subsequent searches of apartments where defendant stayed must be suppressed.
The People appealed the case to the New York Court of Appeals which did not disturb the First Department’s holding that the Troopers had no right to ask for consent to search but did find that the body would have been inevitably discovered as part of an inventory search of the vehicle. So ultimately the evidence was allowed but under the inevitable discovery doctrine because the vehicle would have been impounded since the defendant’s license was suspended. The request to search however was improper. This distinction, I’m sure, was of no consequence to the defendant in this case.
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