by Jill Paperno, Esq., author of Representing the Accused:A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense and Brian Shiffrin, Esq., Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin LLP
On December 15, 2014, in Heien v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court found that a police officer's mistaken belief that the law required two working brake lights, when it only required one, which led to a stop and consent search of a vehicle, was reasonable, and as such, the product of the search would not be suppressed. Sadly, a defendant not trained in the law as a police officer is, who had the mistaken belief that only one light was necessary instead of two, would not be treated as kindly by the courts. The dissent and concurrence discuss whether this will encourage ignorance on the part of the officers. Remember that if you are in a situation in which federal law is bad, argue that New York State's constitution is more protective of rights and make a state constitutional argument.
The good news is that, as pointed out by Jamie Hobbs of the Monroe County Public Defender's Office, the current New York state case law is the opposite from the decision reached by the Supreme Court. (e.g., People v Smith, 67 AD3d 1392, 1392 [4th Dept 2009] ("Where the officer's belief is based on an erroneous interpretation of law, the stop is illegal at the outset and any further actions by the police as a direct result of the stop are illegal"). Thus, New York attorneys shoud continue to argue that pursuant to the New York Constitution, an officer's mistaken belief is not justification for a bad search.
New York attorneys should remember that, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, although the language of the State and Federal constitutional privacy guarantees (US Const 4th Amend; NY Const, art 1, Sec 12) are identical, this Court of Appeals has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to adopt more protective standards under the State Constitution,
"when doing so best promotes 'predictability and precision in judicial review of search and seizure cases and the protection of the individual rights of our citizens.' " People v. P. J. Video, 68 N.Y.2d 296, 304, 508 N.Y.S.2d 907, 501 N.E.2d 556 [on remand], quoting People v. Johnson, 66 N.Y.2d 398, 407, 497 N.Y.S.2d 618, 488 N.E.2d 439). Accordingly, we have in recent years carved out an independent body of principles to govern citizen-police encounters in a number of specific areas (see, e.g., People v. P. J. Video, supra [warrant application requirements in obscenity cases]; People v. Bigelow, 66 N.Y.2d 417, 497 N.Y.S.2d 630, 488 N.E.2d 451 [declining to follow "good faith" test outlined in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 and Massachusetts v. Sheppard, 468 U.S. 981, 104 S.Ct. 3424, 82 L.Ed.2d 737]; People v. Johnson, 66 N.Y.2d 398, 497 N.Y.S.2d 618, 488 N.E.2d 439, supra [declining to apply "totality of circumstances" test outlined in Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 103 S.Ct. 2317, 76 L.Ed.2d 527 to warrantless arrests]; People v. Class, 67 N.Y.2d 431, 503 N.Y.S.2d 313, 494 N.E.2d 444 [on remand] [search for vehicle identification number in connection with traffic stop]; People v. Gokey, 60 N.Y.2d 309, 469 N.Y.S.2d 618, 457 N.E.2d 723 [warrantless search incident to arrest]; People v. Belton, 55 N.Y.2d 49, 447 N.Y.S.2d 873, 432 N.E.2d 745, supra [search of personal effects within automobile]; People v. Landy, 59 N.Y.2d 369, 465 N.Y.S.2d 857, 452 N.E.2d 1185, [reiterating Elwell rule]; People v. Elwell, 50 N.Y.2d 231, 428 N.Y.S.2d 655, 406 N.E.2d 471, supra [probable cause predicated on informant's tip]; see also, People v. Stith, 69 N.Y.2d 313, 316, n. 514 N.Y.S.2d 201, 506 N.E.2d 911, [exclusionary rule as it pertains to inevitable discovery doctrine] ).