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People v. Garcia - 2012 NY Slip Op 8670, 20 N.Y.3d 317, 959 N.Y.S.2d 464, 983 N.E.2d 259

Rule:

The framework in People v De Bour, 40 NY2d 210 (1976), and People v Hollman, 79 NY2d 181 (1992), sets out four levels of police-citizen encounters and the attendant, escalating measures of suspicion necessary to justify each. At the initial level, a "request for information," a police officer may approach an individual when there is some objective credible reason for that interference not necessarily indicative of criminality. The request may involve basic nonthreatening questions regarding, for instance, identity, address, or destination. However, once the officer asks more pointed questions that would lead the person approached reasonably to believe that he or she is suspected of some wrongdoing, the officer is no longer merely seeking information. This common-law right of inquiry, a wholly separate level of contact, is activated by a founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. 

Facts:

While on patrol, two police officers pulled over defendant Miguel Garcia's vehicle because of a defective rear brake light. When the passengers made furtive movements and acted nervous, one of the officers asked if anyone in the vehicle had a weapon. When one of the passengers admitted that he had a knife, the officers ordered the occupants out of the vehicle and frisked each man as he exited the car. Thereafter, the other officer saw and retrieved an air gun that was wedged between the front passenger seat and the door of the vehicle. During a subsequent inventory search of the vehicle, a second air rifle was located in the trunk. Defendant was later arrested.

Defendant waived his Miranda rights and, after a 15 to 20 minute police interrogation, admitted that he was the owner of the air guns. An ensuing misdemeanor information charged defendant with two counts of misdemeanor possession of an air pistol or rifle. At trial in New York state court, defendant moved to suppress the air rifles, arguing that the officers had no basis for searching the car after it was stopped. The trial court granted defendant's motion, holding that the officer's question as to whether the occupants possessed any weapons required founded suspicion of criminality and that mere nervousness on the part of the occupants did not give rise to such suspicion. On the People's motion to reargue, the trial court relied on People v. Alvarez and ruled that the officer's inquiry into the presence of weapons was permissible even though the officer lacked a founded suspicion. Defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of the reduced charge of attempted unlawful possession of an air pistol or air rifle and was sentenced to a conditional discharge.

An appellate court reversed and vacated the judgment convicting defendant, granted defendant's suppression motion and dismissed the information, ruling that the trial court erred in relying on Alvarez upon reargument and that the trial court's initial determination that the officer's inquiry required founded suspicion was correct. The Court of Appeals of New York granted the People's application for leave to appeal.

Issue:

Could a police officer, without founded suspicion for the inquiry, ask the occupants of a lawfully stopped vehicle if they possessed any weapons. 

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

In light of the heightened dangers faced by investigating police officers during traffic stops, a police officer could, as a precautionary measure and without particularized suspicion, direct the occupants of a lawfully stopped vehicle to step out of the car. While "[a] citizen does not surrender all the protections of the Fourth Amendment by entering an automobile", the Supreme Court of the United States declared in Pennsylvania v Mimms, 434 US 106, 98 S Ct 330, 54 L Ed 2d 331 [1977] that the intrusion occasioned by requiring an occupant to "expose to view very little more of his person than is already exposed" was "de minimis" and "cannot prevail when balanced against legitimate concerns for the officer's safety." Accordingly, the Court of Appeals of New York held in People v Robinson, 74 NY2d 773, 775, 543 NE2d 733, 545 NYS2d 90 [1989] that "[b]rief and uniform precautionary procedures of this kind are not per se unreasonable and unconstitutional" under federal law.

The court found, inter alia, that while the evidence demonstrated only that the occupants of the vehicle appeared nervous, the officers could not, without founded suspicion for the inquiry, ask the occupants if they possessed any weapons. Therefore, the appellate court properly suppressed the air guns. 

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