Did Traffic Infraction (Not Violation) Warrant Search and Seizure? New York Court of Appeals Finds Distinction With a Difference

This was originally posted on the SGR Blog.

Question presented: Did a state trooper lack an objectively reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred or probable cause to stop a vehicle for a traffic infraction such that the automobile stop was unlawful. The Court answered that the stop was unlawful.

WILSON, J. (for the court):

On the afternoon of November 8, 2014, a New York State Trooper stopped a vehicle on a street in Buffalo. The trooper had observed no traffic violations and saw that the inspection sticker was valid, both of the occupants were wearing their seatbelts, and “everything looked good.” Nevertheless, the trooper ran a check of the car based on the front license plate. The inquiry produced a response that began with a direction to “CONFIRM RECORD WITH ORIGINATOR,” listed as the Buffalo City Police Department. The response then instructed:


The trooper directed the driver to stop in order to “investigate further and find out what the problem [wa]s.” The driver, Robert Hinshaw, provided his license and registration to the trooper; both were in order. When the trooper asked about the impound notification, Hinshaw explained that the car had been stolen previously. The trooper detected an odor of marijuana and observed a “roach” in the center console. He proceeded to search both the driver and the passenger of the vehicle and found additional marijuana on the floor of the passenger side of the car and in Hinshaw’s waistband. The trooper eventually found a loaded gun under the driver’s seat.

Hinshaw was charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and unlawful possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. He moved to suppress the marijuana, the gun, and his statements. At the suppression hearing, the trooper testified that he did not attempt to confirm the information with the originator; he treated the notice as indicating the car may have been stolen; and he had stopped the car based solely on the results of the license plate check.

County Court denied suppression of the physical evidence but granted suppression of Hinshaw’s inculpatory statements that preceded a Miranda warning. Thereafter, Hinshaw pled guilty to the entire indictment. The Appellate Division affirmed concluding that the “impoundment report, coupled with the [t]rooper’s explanation of its import, provided reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle” able to believe that any crime had been committed on the basis of the license plate inquiry result Two Judges dissented. Hinshaw appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Under the settled law of New York, an automobile stop “is a seizure implicating constitutional limitations”. Automobile stops are lawful only when “based on probable cause that a driver has committed a traffic violation”); when based on a reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime; or, “when conducted pursuant to nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory, uniform’ highway traffic procedures”.

In People v Robinson, the Court of Appeals held that a traffic stop did not violate the New York State Constitution where a police officer had probable cause to believe that an automobile driver had committed a traffic violation — even though the officer’s primary motivation to stop the vehicle may have been other than the traffic violation. And noted that although the language of the Fourth Amendment and of article I, Section 12 of our Constitution was “identical,” that language conferred only “similar” rights, explaining that the Court had not hesitated to expand the rights of New York citizens beyond those required by the Federal Constitution. In that case, the defendant had asked the Court of Appeals to extend the protections of New York’s Constitution beyond those given by the Federal Constitution to require more than probable cause when an officer had stopped a vehicle for pretextual reasons. The Court declined to do so, rejecting the defendant’s request to invalidate vehicle stops for pretextual reasons as long as probable cause existed warranting a stop of the vehicle for a valid traffic infraction.

In contrast to the Fourth Amendment, which permits brief investigative stops when a law enforcement officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity, the Court of Appeals had adopted greater protections for pedestrian stops by the police. Suspicionless traffic stops — such as sobriety checkpoints — are allowed in New York only when conducted in a uniform and nondiscriminatory manner.

The Court of Appeals had previously that whether or not a particular search or seizure was to be considered reasonable required a weighing of the government’s interest against the encroachment involved with respect to an individual’s right to privacy and personal security. A forcible stop of the occupants in a vehicle is equally intrusive whether done to enforce the laws against traffic infractions or the laws against crimes. The required balancing of the interests involved differs, when the suspected illegality is a traffic violation or a crime. Requiring probable cause for the former, but the more relaxed standard of reasonable suspicion for the latter, comports with the legislature’s directive that traffic infractions are not crimes and consequently their enforcement by means of a forcible stop, though quite important, does not carry the same governmental interest as the prevention of crimes. Thus, when a traffic violation, not a crime, is the predicate of an officer’s forcible stop of a motorist, greater scrutiny is required.

The trooper in this case did not observe any violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Putting aside the result of the license plate inquiry, the trooper candidly testified that he had had no reason to stop defendant. It was clear, then, that without the result of the license plate inquiry the stop of Hinshaw would have been unlawful and the evidence obtained by that seizure could not be used as evidence against him.

The result of the license plate check provided neither probable cause to conclude a traffic infraction had occurred nor any basis for an objectively reasonable belief that criminal behavior had occurred or was afoot. The trooper’s speculation that the car could have been impounded for registration  problems, the “plates could have been suspended, insurance could have been suspended, or the vehicle could have been stolen was just that — pure speculation. And the absence of any underlying Vehicle and Traffic Law violation from the database inquiry result undermined those unsupported hypotheses. The trooper’s subjective belief that the impound was based on some violation or illegality, honestly held, was insufficient unless it rested on some objective basis. The trooper provided no such basis.

The trooper’s list omitted perfectly innocent — and just as likely — explanations as to why an impound notice might appear in a license plate search, including the actual reason in this case: Hinshaw lawfully recovered his car from the impound lot, and the system still had not corrected the status nearly two weeks later. A car may be impounded for a variety of reasons independent of a violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law or Penal Law. The police may impound a car for the safety of the vehicle and its contents  or when necessary to protect public safety. Impounded cars are commonly towed for non-criminal reasons, such as unpaid parking tickets, parking in “no parking” zones or streets temporally designated for parades, public events, filming or bus routes or public safety. That Hinshaw’s car had at one point been impounded by the Buffalo Police Department, therefore, did not provide the trooper a reasonable suspicion of criminality. Moreover, there were no facts establishing an objective basis to believe that the apparent removal or release of the vehicle from the impound lot was indicative of criminality. Reasonable suspicion may not rest on equivocal or innocuous behavior that was susceptible of an innocent as well as a culpable interpretation. Because there was not even a suggestion that the conduct of Hinshaw or his companions had been furtive in character before the police interfered with their car’s progress, and the record was bare of any objective evidence of criminal activity as of the time of the stop, the stop of Mr. Hinshaw’s vehicle was invalid.

STEIN J. (concurring in result):

Judge Stein concurred the extent of concluding that, under the circumstances here, the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop of Hinshaw’s vehicle insofar as the impound notification failed to supply an objectively reasonable basis for the trooper to believe that either the apparent impounding of the vehicle or its subsequent release from the impound lot was indicative of criminality. But, because the majority inordinately focused on a legal question that the parties had not asked the Court  resolve and regarding which there was no present need for the Court to opine, he concurred only in the result.

According to Judge Stein, the question of whether the trooper had—or was required to have—probable cause to suspect a traffic infraction was simply not before the Court. County Court held that the impound notification provided the state trooper with the requisite reasonable suspicion that criminality was afoot. The Appellate Division likewise concluded that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. Neither court addressed whether the trooper had probable cause to suspect the driver had committed a traffic infraction.

Neither party engaged in any analysis of whether probable cause was necessary, or merely sufficient, to support a vehicle stop based on a suspected traffic infraction. Therefore, in Judge Stein’s view, the question of the required level of suspicion for such a stop was not properly before the Court and the determination of that questions should have awaited a case in which it was squarely presented and briefed by the parties.

The only question presented was whether the trooper’s stop of Hinshaw’s vehicle was supported by reasonable suspicion of a crime. The additional question of whether New York law requires a higher level of justification for a vehicle stop based on a traffic infraction was beyond the scope of the appeal and unnecessary to its holding that the trooper lacked even reasonable suspicion to support the stop.

GARCIAJ. (dissenting):

Judge Garcia, at the start of a very lengthy dissent, restated the question: When a law enforcement officer runs a routine registration check and learns of an impound report that, in the officer’s experience, signifies that the vehicle should not be out on the road, does the officer have the minimal degree of suspicion necessary to conduct a brief traffic stop? Judge Garcia answers yes”.

And criticized the majority for announcing a sea change in New York constitutional law by elevating the degree of suspicion required to conduct an arbitrary subset of traffic stops.

To justify a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer needs only reasonable suspicion—that is, a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law. As a temporary stop is of course less intrusive than an arrest the requisite level of suspicion is obviously less demanding than that for probable cause. While an officer must have more than a mere hunch, the degree of suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop is minimal.

The majority needlessly announced a novel constitutional standard under the guise of settled law. Ignoring decades of relevant authority, the majority casually asserted that its bifurcated test—which imposes a more stringent standard where a stop is based on a suspected “traffic violation” rather than a suspected “crime” was already well-settled in New York. That demonstrably false contention distorted precedent and ignored the contrary views of countless litigants, judges, and commentators. Worse, the majority’s dual standard served no identifiable purpose and required line-drawing exercises that make little sense as a policy matter, and even less sense as a practical matter. And, in the end, the issue was entirely superfluous; it was not raised or briefed by the parties, and it was not necessary to the majority’s holding.

Law enforcement officers are permitted, under the Constitution, to take sensible investigatory steps in response to encounters that raise suspicion to the trained eye. A trooper, conducting routine patrol duties, was not required to ignore a report that, in the trooper’s experience, warranted further investigation.

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