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Law School Case Brief

People v. Scott - 79 N.Y.2d 474, 583 N.Y.S.2d 920, 593 N.E.2d 1328 (1992)


Although the language of the New York and federal constitutional proscriptions against unreasonable searches and seizures generally tends to support a policy of uniformity, the Court of Appeals of New York has not hesitated in the past to interpret N.Y. Const. art. I, § 12 independently of its federal counterpart when necessary to assure that New York citizens are adequately protected from unreasonable governmental intrusions. An independent construction of the New York Constitution is particularly appropriate where a sharp or sudden change in direction by the Supreme Court of the United States dramatically narrows fundamental constitutional rights that New York citizens have long assumed to be part of their birthright.


Two cases were consolidated for appeal. In the first case, defendant Guy F. Scott was charged with growing marijuana after a trespasser provided information to police and both the trespasser and the police entered his land without his knowledge or permission. At trial in New York state court, the county court denied Scott's motion to suppress the evidence of marihuana cultivation seized by the police on the execution of a search warrant of his premises. Scott subsequently pleaded guilty. On appeal, the appellate division affirmed, agreeing with the county court's conclusion that Scott's act of posting no trespassing signs about every 20 to 30 feet around the perimeter of his property, which consisted of 165 acres of rural, hilly, undeveloped, uncultivated fields and woodlands except for the area where he cultivated marihuana, did not establish an expectation of privacy cognizable under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and art. I, § 12 of the N.Y. Constitution. Scott was granted permission to appeal.

In the second case, defendant George Keta was charged with possession of stolen property after police conducting an administrative inspection of his business found stolen auto parts. Keta filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the administrative search and filed a motion to suppress his statements made to the police following his arrest. The supreme court granted the motion, holding that the statutes and city charter provisions that permitted police to conduct random warrantless searches of vehicle dismantling businesses violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and art. I, § 12 of the N.Y. Constitution. On appeal, the appellate division reversed. The State was granted permission to appeal.


Were the warrantless searches unconstitutional?




In Scott's case, the Court of Appeals of New York reversed the appellate division's order, vacated Scott's guilt plea, granted the motion to suppress and dismissed the indictment. The court ruled that the warrantless entries of the police and the trespasser, the latter acting at the request of the police, were illegal under N.Y. Constitution, art. I, § 12. Scott's property was posted with "No Trespassing" signs, Scott in no way failed to manifest a subjective expectation of privacy, and the marihuana was not being cultivated in plain view from a place of public access. The search warrant obtained on the basis of those illegal entries was, therefore, a nullity and the seizure of the evidence discovered upon its execution should have been suppressed.

In Keta's case, the court reversed the appellate division's order, reinstated the trial court's order granting Keta's motion to suppress and remitted the case to the appellate division for consideration of the facts. The court ruled that the warrantless inspection conducted pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a(5)(a) violated the privacy rights encompassed within article I, § 12 of the New York State Constitution. The search of Keta's business was unconstitutional as it was not supported by the exigency of hot pursuit or the existence of a business that was closely regulated. The court found that such administrative inspections were only valid if they were part of a comprehensive administrative program unrelated to the enforcement of criminal laws.

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