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Probable cause requires not proof beyond a reasonable doubt or evidence sufficient to warrant a conviction, but merely information which would lead a reasonable person who possesses the same expertise as the officer to conclude, under the circumstances, that a crime is being or was committed.
These three appeals involved variations of the common glassine envelope scenario. In the first case, People v Buster McRay, the respondent was arrested by a street enforcement unit of the New York City Police Department, headed by Sergeant Alvin Ingram, a 20-year veteran of the department. In August 1977, the sergeant and his unit set up an undercover buy operation in Manhattan. The area was a highly narcotic-prone location when measured by the number of narcotic arrests made, the number of citizen complaints received, and his own observations of narcotics activity. While standing in front of a grocery store observing the undercover buy officer, the sergeant saw the respondent approach and stop a few feet away. Soon respondent was joined by another male, and the two engaged in a short conversation. The respondent then entered the grocery, sergeant followed the respondent into the store and overheard him asking for a "number 3 bag", which the store did not have. Respondent settled for a "number 5 bag" and left the store and rejoined his companion. The men started walking, with the officer following at a safe distance. Suddenly, the men stopped, respondent opened the grocery bag and his companion withdrew bundles of glassine envelopes from his pockets and placed them in the bag. The bundles appeared to contain ten-dollar bags of heroin and were too large for the man's hand to encircle. The respondent was arrested a short time later. Six separate bundles, containing 133 glassine envelopes of heroin, were found in the bag. After the denial of his motion to suppress, the respondent entered a guilty plea. The appellate division, finding a lack of probable cause for arrest, entered an order of reversal on the law. In the second case, in the case of People of the State of New York v Charles J., the appellant was arrested by veteran police officer Lyman Gerrish and his partner. In February 1977, the veteran police officer was positioned on the second floor of an abandoned building in Manhattan. This intersection was so well known for drug trafficking that it became a target of a special police campaign called "Operation Drug." From their vantage point in the abandoned building and utilizing binoculars, the policemen noticed the appellant standing on the celebrated corner. A constantly changing crowd of people milled about, but the appellant remained at the same location for approximately 45 minutes. During that time, seven or eight persons approached the appellant, spoke with him, and departed. Upon the advance of an unidentified male, the veteran police officer saw the appellant reach beneath his coat into his sweater pocket and withdraw a white glassine envelope, and passed the envelope to the other individual. The appellant was arrested and was found to be in possession of 19 packets of heroin. Following the denial of his motion to suppress, the appellant was adjudicated a youthful offender. The divided appellate division affirmed. Lastly, in the case of People of the State of New York v Ronald Hester, the respondent was arrested by an experienced narcotics officer also assigned to "Operation Drug", Ronald Bellistri. In April 1977, he and his partner stationed themselves in an overlooking vacant apartment. Within a few minutes, they observed that respondent and one Artis Jones stopped in front of a schoolyard, looking up and down the street. Jones then passed a stack of whitish glassine envelopes to the respondent, who placed them in his pocket while continuing his watch back and forth along the block. Two more similar exchanges were made. Respondent was then arrested with 31 glassine envelopes in his possession, Jones was also arrested in possession of a quantity of cocaine and $ 415. The respondent filed a motion to suppress but it was denied. He then entered a guilty plea to criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree. The appellate division concluded that there was no probable cause for an arrest, and reversed the law.
Was there a lack of probable cause for a narcotic arrest?
The court concluded in each case that enough was shown to create a fact question as to the probable cause. The court found that as to the first respondent, a veteran narcotics officer witnessed the respondent actually receiving a number of bundles of glassine envelopes in a high narcotics area. In addition to the officer's expertise, and the high incidence of narcotics in the area, it was significant that this defendant made careful preparations to receive the packets, his companion looked furtively up and down the street, and a large number of glassine envelopes were exchanged. Thus, in these circumstances, the finder of fact could properly draw an inference of probable cause, and the appellate division erred in reversing the law. As to the second defendant, the court held that an experienced officer saw seven or eight people approach the defendant and ultimately saw the latter pass a whitish glassine envelope that the officer identified as containing a whitish substance. The locale was so rampant with drugs as to be one of the targets of a special police operation. In such a situation, probable cause existed as it satisfied the minimum requirement for probable cause. Hence, it may not be overturned by this court. As to the third defendant, an experienced officer saw him receive three stacks of whitish glassine envelopes and this defendant was looking up and down the street during the transaction. This situation, made out a fact question as to the existence of probable cause. The court then held that the appellate division erred in reversing the law. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment on the first and third cases and affirmed the decision in the second case.