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New York Court of Appeals Rejects Federal Jurisprudence Allowing Searches of Vehicles Based on Warrants Authorizing Searches of ‘Premises’

As the result of their investigation of Tyrone Gordon, police sought a search warrant. In their warrant application, the officers swore that: (1) on August 13 and August 25, 2015, undercover detectives engaged in two controlled buys of heroin from Gordon; (2) a confidential informant participated in a third controlled purchase from Gordon; and (3) the detectives observed a repetitive pattern: vehicles arrived on the street outside the residence, Gordon would exit the residence, approach the vehicle, deliver an object to the waiting person in exchange for money, and then return to the residence. A warrant was issued authorizing a search of “the person of Tyrone Gordon ... and the entire premises.”

Upon execution of the warrant, police found no contraband connected to Gordon in the residence or on Gordon’s person. Officers then searched a Nissan Maxima registered to Gordon’s cousin that was parked in the driveway and retrieved heroin, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia from the vehicle. Officers also searched an unregistered Chevrolet parked in the backyard and recovered a loaded handgun.

Gordon was arrested and charged with numerous offenses related to the evidence seized from the vehicles. He moved to suppress that evidence. The Supreme Court, relying on state precedent, granted his motion after reasoning that probable cause was lacking because the detectives’ affidavit made no mention of the vehicles or otherwise “provide[d] any specific probable cause [to believe] that the vehicles were involved in criminal activity.” The Appellate Division affirmed, and the Court of Appeals granted the prosecution’s leave to appeal.
The Court observed “[a] search warrant must be based on probable cause and describe with particularity the areas to be searched.” U.S. Const. Amendment IV; NY Const, art. I, § 12. Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”) provides for the issuance of warrants to search persons, premises, or vehicles, stating: “1. A search warrant must direct a search of one or more of the following: A designated or described place or premises; A designated or described vehicle ...; (c) A designated or described person.” CPL 690.15(1).

In People v. Dumper, 28 NY2d 296 (1971), the Court determined that the evidence seized from a vehicle that arrived on premises while those premises were being searched must be suppressed, in part, because “a warrant must describe the premises to be searched, and this warrant did not include the automobile....”

In People v. Hansen, 38 NY2d 17 (1975), the Court held that police had sufficient cause to search Hansen’s residence after observing pipes, scales, and other drug paraphernalia. But the officers did not have probable cause to search a van that they swore was “the sole vehicle observed entering and leaving the premises on a regular basis.” The officers did not report any movement of persons between the house and the van, and their statement was open to interpretation as to whether other vehicles entered or left the premises on a nonregular basis.

And in People v. Sciacca, 45 NY2d 122 (1978), the Court held that tax investigators who had a valid warrant to search a vehicle exceeded the warrant’s scope when they entered a private garage to search the vehicle. Citing Hansen and Dumper, the Sciacca Court explained
“[i]t is clear that a warrant to search a building does not include authority to search vehicles at the premises.... The converse is also true. Authority to search a vehicle does not include authority to enter private premises to effect a search of a vehicle within those premises.”

In the instant case, the People urged the Court to adopt federal jurisprudence that permits searches of vehicles when police have a valid warrant to search the premises and the vehicles are located on those premises. In United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when officers had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search for drugs in the trunk of a vehicle, they were within their authority to open a paper bag found inside the trunk. The Ross decision did not even mention the proposition that a warrant authorizing the search of a premises provided justification to search vehicles on those premises. However, some federal circuits have extended the Ross holding, concluding that vehicles located outside a residence are no different than any other “closets, chests, drawers, [or] containers” located within. [See opinion for federal citations.]

The Court was skeptical of the “wisdom” of the federal courts extending Ross on the theory that automobiles outside a home are no different than objects located within the home. The Court pointed to various conflicting federal decisions in attempting to apply the standard. [See opinion for citations.] Consequently, the Court declined to adopt federal jurisprudence on this issue.

The Court concluded the police lacked probable cause to search the vehicles, and searching the vehicles exceeded the scope of the warrant.

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Related legal case

People v. Gordon



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