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People v. Banks - 85 N.Y.2d 558, 626 N.Y.S.2d 986, 650 N.E.2d 833 (1995)

Rule:

A traffic stop constitutes a limited seizure of the person of each occupant. For a traffic stop to pass constitutional muster, the officer's action in stopping the vehicle must be justified at its inception and the seizure must be reasonably related in scope, including its length, to the circumstances which justified the detention in the first instance.

Facts:

At about 1:00 P.M. on Sept. 14, 1991, while parked in a marked patrol car in the median of a thruway, Trooper Cuprill observed a northbound blue Chevrolet pass by at a speed clocked by radar of 54 miles per hour. Trooper Cuprill observed that the driver was not wearing his seat belt. The Trooper pursued and stopped the vehicle about two miles beyond the point of initial observation. Upon pulling off the highway behind the Chevrolet, Cuprill observed defendant Porter F. Banks sit up from a reclining position in the passenger front seat, apparently also not wearing a seat belt. Co-defendant Robert Jones was the driver of the vehicle; Cuprill got both defendants' driver's licenses. Cuprill went back to his car and ran a license suspension revocation check on the licenses and on the status of the vehicle, all of which came back negative. He then started to write up two tickets for seat belt violations. Instead of issuing them, however, he decided that he "wanted to go through the vehicle" and radioed for a backup officer in order to perform a possible vehicle search. When a backup Trooper arrived, Trooper Cuprill used his public address system to order Jones to return to Cuprill's car. Cuprill handed Jones the two traffic tickets and asked him whether his car contained weapons or drugs. Jones replied no, but stated that they could go ahead and look. Cuprill then filled out a State Police Consent to Search form and handed it to Jones, who signed it. The subsequent search disclosed a bag under the driver's seat containing 1/2 of a kilogram of cocaine. At trial in New York state court, Banks filed a motion to suppress the drugs found in the car on the ground that the search was unlawful; the trial court denied the motion. Defendants were convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree. Banks appealed.

Issue:

Did the court err in denying the motion to suppress evidence?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York reversed the denial of Banks' motion to suppress because the search was the product of an inseparable illegal detention of both Banks and Jones. Banks had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the vehicle and its contents. While the stop was justified, the length and circumstances were not. Once the license and stolen vehicle check came back negative and the Trooper prepared the traffic tickets, the justification for seizing and detaining Banks was exhausted. The Trooper effectively forced Banks to remain at the scene; this detention constituted an impermissible seizure. Banks' nervousness and discrepancies with Jones' answers to the Trooper's questions did not provide a basis for reasonable suspicion of criminality. The consent to search was obtained during or immediately after the extended detention and without any intervening circumstances, and thus the consent was invalid. The court granted the motion to suppress and dismissed the indictment. 

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