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New York Court of Appeals Clarifies When Police May Conduct Traffic Stops

A New York state trooper ran a check of a vehicle’s license plate even though he had not observed any traffic violations; the vehicle inspection sticker was valid, both occupants were wearing seatbelts, and “everything looked good.” The check of the license plate produced a response: “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 speculated that the impound notice meant the car could have been impounded for “registration problems,” or “the plates could have been suspended.” He stopped the vehicle to “investigate further and find out what the problem [wa]s.”

The driver of the vehicle, Robert Hinshaw, explained that his car had been stolen and then impounded after police recovered it. While Hinshaw was offering his explanation, the trooper smelled marijuana and observed a roach in the ashtray. A subsequent search yielded marijuana and a loaded firearm.

Hinshaw was indicted on criminal possession of a weapon and unlawful possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. He filed a motion to suppress the gun, the marijuana, and his statements. The county court denied the motion regarding the marijuana and the gun but suppressed Hinshaw’s statements. Hinshaw pleaded guilty to the charges and appealed, arguing his motion to suppress should have been granted in its entirety. The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed his judgment. The New York Court of Appeals granted further review.

The Court observed “[u]nder the settled law of New York, an automobile stop ‘is a seizure implicating constitutional limitations.’” Spencer. The New York Court of Appeals has held that automobile stops are lawful only when based on probable cause that a driver has committed a traffic violation, People v. Robinson, 767 N.E.2d 638 (N.Y. 2001); or when based on reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime, Spencer; or when conducted pursuant to nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory, uniform highway traffic procedures such as sobriety checkpoints, People v. Sobotker, 373 N.E.2d 1218 (N.Y. 1978).

The New York Court of Appeals has adopted greater protections than the U.S. Supreme Court has given under the Fourth Amendment. Compare Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1978), with People v. DeBour, 352 N.E.2d 562 (N.Y. 1976). The New York Court of Appeals’ jurisprudence regarding traffic stops is based on constitutional and common law and is more protective of the rights of individuals “to be free from aggressive governmental interference.” DeBour. Whether a particular search or seizure is reasonable requires the court to weigh the government’s interest against the encroachment upon an individual’s right to privacy. Id.

The state legislature has directed that traffic infractions are not crimes. Vehicle and Traffic Law § 155. Consequently, the government’s interest in enforcing its traffic laws is not as great as its interest in enforcing its criminal laws. DeBour. Therefore, when a traffic stop is predicated upon a violation of traffic laws, the officer must meet the higher standard of having probable cause to believe the driver has committed a traffic violation. Robinson.

But the lower standard of “reasonable suspicion” will suffice if the officer believes the occupant[s] of the vehicle have committed, are about to commit, or are committing a crime. Spencer. These standards are based squarely on the law of New York. People v. Class, 494 N.E.2d 444 (N.Y. 1986). These standards are also understood by all four Appellate Divisions (see opinion for supporting citations from each Appellate Division articulating the standards).

In the instant case, the Court concluded that the trooper’s speculation as to why the car had been impounded provided neither reasonable suspicion that the occupants were involved in any crime nor probable cause to believe Hinshaw had violated a traffic law. The fact that the check of the license plate revealed no violation of traffic laws undermined the officer’s speculations. And a vehicle may be impounded for countless reasons – many of which are innocuous, e.g., it may be impounded to protect the vehicle and its contents. People v. Tardi, 66 N.E.3d 1084 (N.Y. 2017). And in this case, the vehicle had been lawfully released from impound. The trooper’s belief – even if honestly held – was insufficient to justify the stop unless the belief rested on some objective factor. People v. Edwards, 925 N.E.2d 576 (N.Y. 2010). Thus, the Court concluded that “the stop of Mr. Hinshaw’s vehicle was invalid.”

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Related legal case

People v. Hinshaw



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