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New York Court of Appeals Reverses Denial of Suppression Motion Where Prosecution Fails to Provide Specific Facts to Show Traffic Stop Was Lawful

Balkman was the passenger in a vehicle stopped by a police officer and was charged in relation to a handgun found under his seat. At a suppression hearing, the arresting officer testified that while he was on patrol he observed a red Chevrolet. As a matter of routine, he entered the vehicle’s plate number into the patrol car’s mobile data terminal (“MDT”). In addition to returning details about a vehicle’s registration, the MDT also relays whether the car’s registered owner has an outstanding warrant. The officer testified that the MDT notified him of a “similarity hit.” This meant that there was some similarity between the vehicle’s registered owner and a person with a warrant from the City of Rochester. The officer testified that a similarity hit is generated “based on the name of the registered owner, the date of birth, and other aliases.” But the officer did not testify as to what information he received in the similarity hit in this case or as to any specifics of this match.

Acting solely on the unspecified information from the MDT, he initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle. The officer requested the female driver’s identification and came to believe she wasn’t the subject of the similarity hit because the vehicle was registered to a male. While looking at the car’s inspection sticker, the officer spotted the handgun on the floor under the front passenger seat where Balkman was sitting. After arresting Balkman, the officer determined that the person with the warrant did not, in fact, match the vehicle’s registered owner or anyone else in the vehicle. The officer didn’t testify as to the name, date of birth, or address of the registered owner nor did he provide any identifying facts of the person named in the warrant.

In Balkman’s motion to suppress, he challenged the sufficiency of the factual predicate to justify the traffic stop. The county court denied the motion, and the appellate division affirmed the denial. The Court of Appeals granted further review.

The Court observed “the burden is on the People to come forward with evidence to establish that the stop was lawful.” People v. Dodt, 462 N.E.2d 1159 (N.Y. 1984). A vehicle stop is lawful if based on a reasonable suspicion that one or more of the car’s occupants have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime. People v. Hinshaw, 2020  NY Slip Op 04816 (2020). A stop based on reasonable suspicion will be upheld so long as the intruding officer can point to specific and articulable facts, along with any logical deductions, that reasonably prompted the intrusion. People v. Brannon, 949 N.E.2d 484 (N.Y. 2011). While information generated from running a license plate number through the MTD may provide police with reasonable suspicion, the sufficiency of that information is not presumed. Dodt. The burden is on the People to present evidence of the content of the information that would provide reasonable suspicion. Id.

In Dodt, the officer testified that based on a “general physical description” of the defendant that the officer had received in a teletype communication, he stopped and arrested the defendant. The Dodt Court determined that the People failed to provide sufficient evidence because the officer had not testified as to the specifics of the description he had received; thus, the hearing judge had no basis to conclude the officer had probable cause for the arrest.

In the instant case, the People presented no evidence about the content of the similarity hit. Without such evidence, the suppression court could not independently evaluate whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop.

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Related legal case

People v. Balkman



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