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Law School Case Brief

People v. Diaz - 81 N.Y.2d 106, 595 N.Y.S.2d 940, 612 N.E.2d 298 (1993)


Under the plain view doctrine, if the sight of an object gives the police probable cause to believe that it is the instrumentality of a crime, the object may be seized without a warrant if three conditions are met: (1) the police are lawfully in the position from which the object is viewed; (2) the police have lawful access to the object; and (3) the object's incriminating nature is immediately apparent.


In 1989, officers John Healey and Clark Gordon were patrolling the lower east side of Manhattan at about 4:30 A.M. when they observed several groups congregating on the sidewalks, apparently passing objects from hand to hand. During a 20-minute period, Healey and Gordon, in the course of patrolling the area, observed defendant at various times at the center of several of these groups. In their final pass through the area, the officers saw defendant Robert Diaz standing next to a stopped automobile. When their squad car approached, defendant walked away down the sidewalk. The police drove alongside defendant and called him over to the car. In walking toward the car, defendant repeatedly placed his hand in his pocket despite Officer Healey's warnings against doing so. As defendant reached the car, Healey noticed a bulge in defendant's pocket and again told defendant to remove his hand. Fearing a weapon, Healey grabbed defendant's pocket. He felt no weapon but did detect what "appeared to be a bunch of vials." Defendant then attempted to flee, but, according to Healey, he was able to grab hold of defendant through the car window and pull him partially into the car. While doing so, Healey reached into defendant's pocket and removed 18 vials of crack cocaine. Defendant was then placed under arrest. At trial in New York state court, the trial court granted defendant's the motion to suppress the drugs seized from his pocket, holding that the initial stop and pat-down were not supported by reasonable suspicion. The appellate court reversed and denied the motion. Contrary to the trial court, it found that there was reasonable suspicion to justify the stop and pat-down. The court held, in addition, that the subsequent search and seizure of the drugs were permissible based on what Officer Healey felt during the pat-down. Defendant appealed.


Was there a reasonable suspicion to justify the warrantless search of defendant?




The Court of Appeals of New York reversed the appellate court's decision, granted defendant's motion to suppress the physical evidence produced by the warrantless search and dismissed the indictment against defendant. The court first noted that the appellate court's determination that Officer Healey had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant and conduct a protective pat-down was supported by evidence in the record and was thus beyond the court's further review. The court then ruled that  that information allegedly obtained by the police in conducting an authorized protective pat-down, which demonstrated that defendant was unarmed, did not justify the warrantless search of defendant's pocket under an extension of the plain view exception to the warrant requirement, sometimes referred to as the "plain touch" exception. Justifying the warrantless search on the basis of the items felt during the protective pat-down would be contrary to both the State and Federal Constitutions. The court concluded that the plain view exception to warrantless seizures did not extend to concealed items that were discoverable only through touch. The court held the plain view exception did not permit a search for evidence, but merely its seizure.

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