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Law School Case Brief

People v. De Bour - 40 N.Y.2d 210, 386 N.Y.S.2d 375, 352 N.E.2d 562 (1976)


In evaluating the police action the court must consider whether or not it was justified in its inception and whether or not it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible. A court bears in mind that any inquiry into the propriety of police conduct must weigh the interference it entails against the precipitating and attending conditions. By this approach various intensities of police action are justifiable as the precipitating and attendant factors increase in weight and competence. The minimal intrusion of approaching to request information is permissible when there is some objective credible reason for that interference not necessarily indicative of criminality. The next degree, the common-law right to inquire, is activated by a founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and permits a somewhat greater intrusion in that a policeman is entitled to interfere with a citizen to the extent necessary to gain explanatory information, but short of a forcible seizure. 


Two cases involving similar issues were consolidated for review. In the first case, defendant one was stopped by police officers while walking on the street in the middle of the night. The officer noticed a slight waist-high bulge in defendant one's jacket. The officer asked defendant one to unzip his coat and discovered a weapon. Defendant one was arrested for possession of the gun. His motion to suppress was denied. Defendant one pleaded guilty and the appellate division affirmed. In the second case, the police had an anonymous phone tip that led them to defendant two in a bar. The police ordered defendant two to freeze, raise his hands, and they discovered a loaded pistol. Defendant two was arrested for possession of a weapon, and after his motion to suppress was denied, he pleaded guilty. The appellate division affirmed.


Were the police officers' actions in approaching private citizens for the purpose of requesting information absent any indication of criminal activity justifiable?


Yes (first case); No (second case)


The court affirmed the first case holding that the police could approach a citizen on the street for the purpose of requesting information so long as there was a reason sufficient to justify the police action. On the second case, the court reversed and dismissed the indictment holding that the circumstances of the confrontation did not supply the requisite degree of belief to sustain a frisk.

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