Category Archives: Suppression

Unilateral triggering of indelible right to counsel? COA says no.

Last month, the Court of Appeals decided an interesting case on the indelible right to counsel, People v. Pacquette (Ct. App. 6/7/2011) (Read, J.) (5-2).  The Defendant was suspected of a homicide in Brooklyn and he made inculpatory statements on that crime that he sought to have suppressed.  The statements were made after the Defendant had been arraigned in Manhattan on drug charges.  Brooklyn detectives had already put the Defendant in a lineup in Brooklyn and were sitting with him in Manhattan Criminal Court.  The Defendant was ROR'd and was then arrested by the Brooklyn detectives.  He then made the incriminating statements.

The question boiled down to whether the Defendant's attorney on the drug charge sufficiently communicated his involvement in the Brooklyn case such that the indelible right to counsel would have attached.  The court looked at the conflicting testimony of the various participants, including the attorney and the detectives, and concluded that he had not.  Specifically, the Defendant argued that his attorney's "neglect to 'specify' to the detectives whether he represented defendant in 'the drug case or the homicide case or both,' created an ambiguity causing the indelible right to counsel to attach."  He argued that it at least warranted sending the case back for a further hearing. 

The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding, "We have never held that an attorney may unilaterally create an attorney-client relationship in a criminal proceeding in this fashion, and decline to do so now. … If he had said in open court that defendant 'was represented by counsel and that [the police] should not question him,' the prosecutor (or the judge) would have had the occasion and the opportunity to ask him flat out whether he was defendant's lawyer in the murder case, as the judge and the prosecutor later did at the Huntley hearing and the trial, respectively. Moreover, there is no ambiguity here, as there was in Ramos, about whether defendant may have intended to invoke his right to counsel before making the inculpatory statements." 

The facts of the case are a bit convoluted, but the decision is worth a read if you have a right to counsel issue in a case.  (LC)

Identification held not to be unduly suggestive

The Court of Appeals, in Peopdle v. Gilford (Ct. App. 5/3/2011) (7-0), held that evidence in the record supported that an identification of a defendant under police spotlights, exiting a police car wearing handcuffs and subject to visible flanking in front of the witnesses, was not unduly suggestive.

One victim suffered a mortal stab would in his chest at an indoor roller skating rink called “Skate Key” in the Bronx; another suffered a nearly fatal stab wound. Immediately after the stabbing, a female witness who was helping one of the victims, identified the Defendant as the attacker, to a police sergeant assigned to the area outside of Skate Key. The witness and sergeant pursued the fleeing Defendant and were later joined by two uniformed police officers.  The defendant was apprehended.  An officer took the Defendant to the hospital with the hopes of doing a showup with the first victim.  However, the officer was told that the victim was being attended to by physicians and could not do a showup. 

Nevertheless, the officer stopped two individuals who appeared distraught.  They indicated that they were at the hospital because they were friends with the first victim.  The officer asked “if they knew anything about what had happened at Skate Key and they said that they did.” The officer did not know that the female witness had already identified the Defendant to the sergeant as the attacker. The witness and companion identified the attacker under a bright light while the Defendant was in handcuffs. This took place no more than 45 minutes after the crime.

The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the identification evidence because exigent circumstances, specifically, Jones’s imminent death, existed; further, the showup was not unduly suggestive, even though the defendant was “spotlighted by takedown” lights, taken from a police car wearing handcuffs and “flanked by police officers in plain view.” Additionally, defense counsel unsuccessfully argued that the showup was impermissibly duplicative because the officers had to have known that a showup was unnecessary to establish probable cause since the defendant was already under arrest. The judge responded that the chain of events was “unbroken,” “related in temporal and geographic proximity” and was necessary in light of the circumstances.

The Appellate Division found no basis for suppression and the Court of Appeals affirmed; the Court explained that the suppression inquiry is whether the showup was reasonable under the circumstances and then if it was unduly suggestive.  As both are mixed questions of law and fact, and the trial court and Appellate Division's findings were supported by evidence in the record, further review by the Court of Appeals was not possible. (RB/LC)

Gravity knives and testilying

I have previous written and blogged about testilying—the phenomenon of some police officers committing perjury to further their cases.  The police who commit testilying view it as a small indiscretion serving a greater good, the conviction of a criminal.  Testilying often comes about in the Fourth Amendment/suppression hearing context, where the police officer need only mouth certain "magic words" that establish probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or some other lesser standard.

In People v. Brannon (Ct. App. 5/5/2011) (Pigott, J.) (6-1), the issue was whether, in two companion cases, the police officers established sufficient reasonable suspicion that the defendants had gravity knives.  The Court of Appeals held that reasonable suspicion in the gravity knife context requires specific facts that led the police officer to believe that the object was a gravity knife and not some other type of knife.  But, ordinarily, a person cannot tell if an object is a gravity knife unless it is opened.  The court responded:

Reasonable suspicion, however, does not require absolute certainty that the knife the individual is carrying is a gravity knife. Rather, the issue is whether, under the circumstances, the officer possessed specific and articulable facts from which he or she inferred that the defendant was carrying a gravity knife.

Using this standard, the court was able to distinguish the two cases.  In Brannon, while the officer saw the "hinged top of a closed knife" and saw the "outline" of a knife in his pocket, he was unable to testify that it was a pocket knife.  However, in Fernandez, the officer's testimony was that he saw the "head" of a knife and "based on his experience that gravity knives are commonly carried in a person's pocket, attached with a clip, with the 'head' protruding."

Judge Jones dissented from Fernandez but concurred in Brannon.  He noted a key problem with the court's articulated standard:

In my view, had the officer in Brannon merely testified that he believed a gravity knife, and not a pocketknife, was present, then the outcome in that case would have been different. Instead of requiring the police and the People to articulate a specific factual basis for reasonable suspicion justifying these stops, in these types of cases, prosecutors will now be encouraged to present police officers who can describe their training and experience with gravity knives, and testify that a gravity knife, and not a "typical pocket knife", was observed. Given the highly intrusive nature of these stops, the acceptance of these conclusory statements at Mapp/Dunaway hearings as a minimal basis for the admission of evidence poses a significant danger.


Automobile except extends to exterior of vehicle

In a novel case, the First Department held that the automobile exception, which permits a warrantless search of a vehicle based on probable cause, extends to the exterior of the vehicle.  In People v. Howard (1st Dept. 2/1/2011), the police witnessed a suspected drug deal.  The Defendant, the driver of the vehicle, reached under the car and handed a small object to a buyer in exchange for cash.  The police stopped the vehicle and found drugs attached to the bottom of the car by magnets.  The court held, "We see no logical reason to give a closed container attached to the outside of a car any greater protection, especially where it is located in an area directly associated with the observed activity giving rise to probable cause."

The court nevertheless reversed because the trial court improperly rejected a challenge for cause to a juror.  (LC)

Evidence flowing from an illegal arrest suppressed at trial


In People v. Williams (4th Dept. 12/30/2010), the defendant appealed two separate convictions: the first was for Criminal Possession of a Weapon 3° and the second was for Burglary 2°. The court agreed with the defendant’s argument that money taken from the defendant’s pocket by a police officer should have been suppressed as “fruit of an unlawful arrest.” 

The Defendant was suspected of various residential burglaries occurring at night. As a result, police obtained a warrant authorizing GPS tracking of the defendant’s car. At 3:00 am on the night of the burglary, the vehicle left the Defendant’s residence, traveled east on I-490, and parked in a neighborhood near the disputed burglary. Approximately one hour later, the vehicle traveled west on the same highway, where it was stopped by police for speeding.  The police officers had reports of “possibly suspicious behavior.” They stopped the car, requested the driver's license and registration, and asked him to exit his vehicle. 

At this point, no probable cause existed to arrest him on Burglary charges. However, there was sufficient reason to stop him, ask him for his license and registration, and order him out of the car, since he was speeding.  Nevertheless, the police went further and engaged in an “intrusion amounting to arrest” requiring probable cause. Specifically, the defendant was frisked, handcuffed, and put into a police car. During the frisk, an officer felt a bulge in the defendant’s pocket that felt like paper. The bulge turned out to be cash, which matched both in amount and denomination with what had recently been stolen. Further, the Defendant lied about his destination: he said he was on his way to Binghamton, but needed to return home for money. At this point, the burglary had been confirmed. The officer testified that the defendant was detained for about 15-20 minutes. 

The majority held that the officers also should not have detained the defendant while other officers attempted to ascertain whether the burglary had been committed without evidence establishing probable cause. Thus, this arrest was illegal. Further, the money taken from his pocket was suppressed because it “flowed directly from the illegal arrest.”  The court went on to hold that the erroneous admission of the unconstitutionally seized evidence (the money) was not harmless error.  The money was the only evidence connecting the Defendant to the burglary. Since this conviction was reversed, the first appeal was also reversed, since it was induced by a promise of a concurrent sentence. 

Justices Scudder and Martoche dissented and argued that the money seized was not the product of an unlawful arrest. Specifically, that these facts fit the principle that if investigating possible criminal activity is going to be served, the police must be able to detain an individual for longer than a brief time period. 

Justice Scudder emphasized that when the police officers knew the defendant was lying about his destination, the matter escalated from reasonable suspicion to probable cause to believe this defendant committed the burglary and justified his arrest. 

Justice Martoche dissented further and argued that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the jury was presented with significant circumstantial evidence of the defendant’s guilt:

defendant drove to the neighborhood where the burglary was committed and circled around and parked for approximately 25 to 30 minutes near the home that was burglarized; items from a purse were found strewn in the vicinity where defendant parked, within minutes after defendant left the area; the purse and items found were missing from a home in the neighborhood where the burglary occurred; partial tread marks on the kitchen floor at the burglarized home matched the sneakers that defendant was wearing when he was apprehended, and did not match shoes owned by the owners of the burglarized home; canine tracking behind and up to the back of the homes in the neighborhood eventually stopped at the burglarized home; and defendant made inconsistent statements to the police when discussing his activities that evening and his behavior was of a suspicious nature.