ABKLaw BLOG by Partner Hon. Barry Kamins: New York Law Journal Criminal Law and Procedure column February 1, 2021

‘Braking’ News: Court of Appeals Tackles Trio of Automobile Cases

In his Criminal Law and Procedure column, Barry Kamins reviews recent jurisprudence from the New York Court of Appeals regarding vehicle stops: The court clarified the legal standard required for both a traffic stop as well as an investigative stop based on suspicion of criminal activity; it offered guidance on stops that are based upon a mistake of law by police officers; and it clarified the prosecution’s burden to justify an automobile stop based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

In the Fall term of last year, the New York Court of Appeals issued a number of decisions dealing with automobile stops. The court clarified the legal standard required for both a traffic stop as well as an investigative stop based on suspicion of criminal activity. It also offered guidance on automobile stops that are based upon a mistake of law by police officers. Finally, it clarified the prosecution’s burden to justify an automobile stop based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

In People v. Hinshaw, 35 N.Y.3d 427 (2020), the court first addressed automobile stops based upon violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. The court held that a traffic stop is valid when a police officer has probable cause to believe that the driver of an automobile has committed a traffic infraction.

Hinshaw is significant for two reasons. First, in writing for the court, Judge Rowan Wilson noted that, with respect to traffic stops, the court was providing greater protection to New York citizens than that which is provided under federal constitutional standards. As the court had done in People v. DeBour, 40 N.Y.2d 210 (1976), with respect to police-citizen encounters on the street, the court has now also provided greater protection for traffic infraction vehicle stops. Thus, although the U.S. Supreme Court has only required reasonable suspicion for such stops (Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014)), in New York, probable cause is the predicate for such police action.

Hinshaw is also significant because it clarified what the New York standard of proof had been in the past. As Judge Wilson noted in his opinion, the court was merely applying the standard that had been applied in the past by the four Appellate Division departments. In a dissenting opinion by Judge Michael Garcia, however, he opined that there had been “confusion among the courts on the correct standard.” Id. at 452. The confusion stems from the court’s 1975 decision in People v. Ingle, 36 N.Y.2d 413, which, according to Judge Garcia, only required reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. The judge pointed out that, “[i]n the ensuing decades, New York courts consistently applied Ingle’s reasonable suspicion standard to traffic stops across the board …” Id. at 445.

Judge Garcia’s comments are reminiscent of a comment made by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell who, perceiving what he believed to be confusion over the court’s jurisprudence in automobile cases, lamented: “I recognize … that the law of search and seizure with respect to automobiles is confusing. The court apparently cannot agree even on what it has held previously, let alone on how these cases should be decided.” Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, 430 (1981).

To complicate matters, in People v. Robinson, 97 N.Y.2d 341 (2001), the Court of Appeals, as a matter of state constitutional law, adopted the holding in Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that pretext stops are unlawful. The Court of Appeals then held that an automobile stop is lawful when a police officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has violated the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Nonetheless, Judge Garcia was of the view that the Robinson court did not announce a heightened state standard for Vehicle and Traffic Law-based stops.

In People v. Pena, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op 06836 (2020), the court revisited the issue of automobile stops based upon law enforcement error. Until recently, lower courts had analyzed these cases by distinguishing between mistakes of law and mistakes of fact. Five years ago, the Court of Appeals concluded that courts no longer needed to utilize that analysis—courts now only needed to determine whether a mistake was reasonable in order to justify an automobile stop. People v. Guthrie, 25 N.Y.3d 130 (2015).

The above trio of cases significantly enhances the court’s jurisprudence on automobile stops. In Hinshaw, the court, as it did in DeBour, based its decision on considerations of reasonableness and sound state policy. It reflects the judgment of the court that traffic stops in New York require greater protection than that provided under federal law in order to protect citizens from arbitrary and discriminatory police conduct. Hinshaw also adds to the court’s rich and diverse history of decisions which have afforded greater protection to New York citizens on search and seizure issues than that given under federal constitutional standards.

 

TO READ FULL ARTICLE:  https://www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/2021/02/01/braking-news-court-of-appeals-tackles-trio-of-automobile-cases/

 

Barry Kamins, a partner at Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins and author of New York Search and Seizure (Lexis/Nexis 2020), is a former New York Supreme Court Judge.

 

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