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After a traffic stop, police can make unrelated arrests, New York high court says.

Police in New York violate no federal or state law if they stop vehicles for traffic violations and make arrests for unrelated crimes, the New York Court of Appeals has ruled. (People v. Robinson, Nos. 141, 142, 143, 2001 WL 1657207 (N.Y. Dec. 18, 2001).)

The 4-3 ruling by the state's highest court adopted the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Whren v. United States: If police have probable cause to stop a vehicle to issue a traffic citation or warning, a subsequent search does not violate the Fourth Amendment even if the underlying reason for the stop had been to investigate some other matter. (517 U.S. 806 (1996).)

Holding otherwise would "put unacceptable restraints on law enforcement," Judge George Bundy Smith wrote for the New York Court of Appeals. "Rather than restrain the police in these instances, the police should be permitted to do what they are sworn to do--uphold the law."

The majority was not swayed by an amicus brief in which the New York State Defenders Association urged the court to limit police powers. "What the state seeks in these cases," the association warned, "is to deregulate the discretion of police officers in New York, to permit them to stop citizens on the highway for invidious, arbitrary, or ulterior purposes, using the existence of a traffic offense as a pretext."

John Tunney, president of the New York State District Attorneys Association and district attorney in Steuben County, disagreed. He subscribed to the majority's assertion that the "real concern" of those who oppose pretextual stops--that police officers will engage in racial profiling--is unfounded and that profiling is irrelevant to Robinson. The association had filed an amicus brief in support of the standard set forth by Whren.

"Racial profiling is a separate issue that ought to be dealt with directly," Tunney said. "The court should not tailor its ruling on the general issue of traffic stops in an attempt to deal with the larger issue of racial profiling. There's a better, more effective way to do that: Train officers. Sensitize them to the issue of racial profiling. Monitor and evaluate them."

Whren involved a sport utility vehicle (SUV) that remained at a stop sign longer than necessary, rousing the suspicions of police officers patrolling an area of Washington, D.C., known for its active drug trade. The police pulled over the SUV after it eventually turned without signaling and sped away. When the officers approached the vehicle, defendant Michael Whren was holding two plastic bags of crack cocaine. The police arrested him as well as the driver and later found more drugs in the SUV. The men faced federal drug charges.

They moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that the officers' claim that they had stopped the SIN to give a warning was pretextual. The men claimed that the stop had not been justified by reasonable suspicion that they had been engaged in illegal drug activity. The trial court denied suppression, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the police officers had probable cause to stop the vehicle to issue a traffic citation or warning, so their true motive in making the stop was irrelevant.

The recent New York decision involved three unrelated cases in which motorists had been arrested after police stopped them for minor traffic infractions:

* In People v. Robinson, New York City police officers pulled over a cab that had sped through a red light. When they approached the vehicle, the officers noticed that passenger Frank Robinson was wearing a bulletproof vest. They ordered him out of the cab and saw a small revolver on the floor. The police arrested Robinson and charged him with unlawfully wearing a bulletproof vest and illegally possessing a weapon.

Robinson filed a motion asking the trial court to suppress the vest and gun evidence. He argued that the officers had used a traffic infraction as a pretext to search him. The court denied the defendant's motion and convicted him on both charges. The Supreme Court Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, applying Whren.

* In People v. Reynolds, a police officer in Rochester saw a man he knew to be a prostitute enter defendant Patrick Reynolds's pickup truck. The officer followed the truck and stopped it when he learned that the vehicle's registration had expired two months earlier. No prostitution charges were filed against the men, but police arrested Reynolds, charging him with driving while intoxicated and operating an unregistered vehicle, as well as an unclassified misdemeanor.

The Rochester City Court granted Reynolds's motion to dismiss the charges. The Monroe County Court affirmed the dismissal, holding that the traffic violation was a pretextual reason for the stop and that the officer's motivation in pulling over the truck was to investigate prostitution.

* In People v. Glen, plainclothes police officers on street-crime patrol in an unmarked car in Manhattan saw a cab turn without signaling. One officer noticed that the back-seat passenger leaned forward, which suggested to him that the passenger may have been trying to rob the driver. The police stopped the vehicle and found about 50 bags of cocaine on the rear seat. They arrested passenger Jerry Glenn and, after finding more drugs on him, charged him with both criminal possession of a controlled substance and criminal use of drug paraphernalia.

Glenn filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop for the traffic infraction was a pretext to investigate a robbery. The trial court denied his motion, and Glenn pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance. The appeals court affirmed the lower court's denial of the motion.

In reviewing the three cases, the state high court noted that probable-cause stops are based on violations of law, not on the discretion of police officers. "An officer may choose to stop someone for a `minor' violation ... but the officer's authority to stop a vehicle is circumscribed by the requirement of a violation of a duly enacted law.... [I]t is the violation of a statute that both triggers the officer's authority to make the stop and limits the officer's discretion," Smith wrote.

The Court of Appeals concluded that "where a police officer has probable cause to believe that the driver of an automobile has committed a traffic violation, a stop does not violate ... the New York State Constitution."

Three dissenting judges stated that Whren does not adequately protect the "constitutional rights of motorists from arbitrarily exercised police powers to seize and search" and "should not be followed as a matter of state constitutional law."

They argued that because motor vehicle travel is so much a part of people's lives and is minutely regulated, motorists' total compliance with the law is not possible.

In its opinion, the majority countered that "while New Yorkers may ubiquitously disobey parts of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, that does not render its commands unenforceable."

Tunney said the court's decision "provides the most effective yardstick by which to evaluate police conduct."
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Author:Reichart, Jennifer L.
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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