Constitutional Law Criminal Law Litigation

NY Appellate Court: Police Had No Right To Arrest Person Who Fled

In marking a clear difference between what’s enough to stop a suspect and what’s enough to justify an arrest, the Fourth Department, the State appellate court covering Upstate NY, overturned a conviction based on the guilty plea of one Belton Lee. People v. Belton Lee 2013 WL 5496151 (4th Dep’t 2013).

Two Canandaigua police officers and the Department chief were conducting surveillance on a bar which had a history of drug activity. They observed the defendant sitting in his car in front of the bar for period of about half an hour. Over the course of the half-hour, the police testified they observed a man with a satchel walk to a parked vehicle in which defendant and another man were seated and then return to an area outside the bar where about 10 to 20 people were standing. According to the police, that sequence occurred between three and five times. When the man with the satchel was at the vehicle, he would reach “well into” the vehicle and, when
he was talking to the people outside the bar, he would shake hands with them in a manner “consistent with hand-to-hand drug transactions.” The police also observed the man with the satchel use his cell phone and reach into the satchel multiple times. In addition, the vehicle’s headlights would occasionally flash on and off. The officers, who were experienced in the detection and sale of illegal drugs, concluded that illegal drug transactions were occurring from the vehicle, even though they saw no glassine envelopes, drugs or currency exchanged. At this point, the defendant had exited the car and was standing next to it.

CanandaiguapoliceWhen the police announced their presence, the defendant jumped back in the car and took off. Police pursued the vehicle and eventually pulled it over. The defendant was then ordered to get out of the car and to lie on the ground, while the police chief and a detective had their guns drawn. Defendant was then handcuffed, searched, and placed in the back seat of a police car, and one police witness testified that defendant was arrested at that time. The police chief afterwards observed a dagger and a baggie containing a white residue in the vehicle, in plain view, and an inventory search of the vehicle uncovered another baggie with cocaine residue.

While the trial court refused to suppress the evidence, the appellate court held that the arrest was premature:

Here, the police observed neither a “‘telltale sign’ ” of narcotics, such as a glassine baggie, nor the exchange of currency. Thus, despite the observations of the police outside the bar, their experience in drug investigations, and defendant’s flight, we conclude that the police did not have probable cause to arrest defendant before the dagger and first baggie were observed.

The court held that the police were justified in approaching the vehicle outside the bar because they had a “founded suspicion that criminal activity [was] afoot,” rendering the police encounter lawful at its inception.” citing the NY Court of Appeals landmark case of People v. De Bour, 40 NY2d 210. The Fourth Dept. also concluded that the police were justified in pursuing the vehicle because “defendant’s flight in response to an approach by the police, combined with other specific circumstances indicating that [he] may be engaged in criminal activity, [gave] rise to reasonable suspicion, the necessary predicate for police pursuit” Such reasonable suspicion also gave the police the authority to stop the vehicle according to the court. But all of that still did not justify handcuffing and arresting the defendant before the police saw the drugs and weapons in the back seat of the car. Therefore the court suppressed all of the evidence found after the handcuffing of the defendant and vacated the conviction.

The case is a strong decision drawing a strict line between police surmise and hunches and actual evidence of criminal activity; it also sets a clear distinction between the reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a stop and even a chase and the probable cause needed to justify an arrest of a person. The case also significantly devalues the evidence of flight in establishing probable cause to arrest a suspect. A surprising stance taken by the normally pro-prosecution Fourth Department.

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