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Law School Case Brief

People v. Spencer - 84 N.Y.2d 749, 622 N.Y.S.2d 483, 646 N.E.2d 785 (1995)


The stop of an automobile is a seizure implicating constitutional limitations, even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief. Police stops of automobiles in New York are legal only pursuant to routine, non-pretextual traffic checks to enforce traffic regulations or when there exists at least a reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime. As in the Terry case, one general interest present in the context of ongoing or imminent criminal activity is that of effective crime prevention and detection.


Marijuana and a loaded revolver were found in defendant Clive Spencer's car when the police stopped Spencer and pulled him over to question him about the whereabouts of a friend suspected of criminal activity. The trial court and the appellate court denied Spencer's motion to suppress, holding that the police acted reasonably in stopping Spencer's car to ask for information concerning a suspect's whereabouts.


Was the police stop in a moving vehicle in order to request information of the driver concerning the whereabouts of a criminal suspect reasonable in this case?




The Court of Appeals of New York found that the stop of defendant was a seizure and proceeded to examine whether the seizure was reasonable. The Court balanced the intrusion into defendant Spencer's Fourth Amendment interests against the promotion of legitimate government interests and found that the nature and degree of police intrusion outweighed the government interest in investigating a crime. The Court found that the intrusion was all the greater because the crime was not "afoot," and there was no suspicion that Spencer was involved in criminal activity. The Court found that the police abused their authority and violated Spencer's reasonable expectation of privacy by their unconstrained stop. The Court held that the exclusionary rule should apply. The Court reversed the order of the lower court, granted defendant's motion to suppress the physical evidence seized, and dismissed the indictment. In the circumstances of this case, when the foreseeable deterrent effect against unlawful police conduct is fairly balanced against the adverse impact of suppression upon the truth-finding process, the scale tips decidedly in favor of suppression. The Court explained that if the instant stop were permissible and motorists could in fact be pulled over at an individual police officer's discretion based upon the mere right to request information, a Pandora's box of pretextual police stops would be opened.

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