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.