This decision refers to two separate cases for criminal crack cocaine possession and criminal possession of drug paraphernalia which occurred in separate incidents, involving two separate and distinct defendants. They were charged separately and were tried separately but the appeals are here resolved jointly because of similarity of issues.
In the first case, two police officers were in the vicinity of Broadway when they saw a speeding car with its tires screeching. Pedestrians on the crosswalk jumped and ran back to the curb so as not to be hit by the speeding car. The two police officers chased the car and pulled the car over.
Both officers approached the car, one officer standing by the open window of the driver’s side and the other officer standing by the open window of the passenger side. Three men were in the car. And while speaking to the occupants of the car, through the open window by the passenger side, the officer saw a shopping back in the back seat. It contained vials.
The police officer then got his partner’s attention and pointed to the shopping bag. The officers asked the three men to get out of the car as they were placed under arrest. When the officers asked them to whom the bag belonged, all three said they didn’t know who the owner was. When the officer asked them what was in the bag, the Defendant said that the bag contained vials.
After handcuffing the defendants and issuing the driver a ticket for the speeding, the officers inspected and searched the car. They took out the shopping bag and inspected its contents. It contained 200 vials and caps. There was also a container of bread crumbs that had a false bottom. When the officers opened the container, there was a plastic sachet with crack cocaine in it.
At the police station, the defendant passenger waived his right to an attorney and to remain silent. He gave a statement to the police and told them that he was the one who purchased the cocaine for a friend. He bought it for $2800 from a guy on 140th street.
The defendant was charged with two counts of criminal crack cocaine possession and criminal possession of drug paraphernalia. Before trial, he moved that the vials, the caps and the cocaine be suppressed as evidence against him during the trial because these were obtained through a warrantless arrest. After the suppression hearing, the trial court denied the motion for suppression. This denial of his motion to suppress is what the defendant appealed.
The second case on appeal involves similar facts and issues. The defendant in the second case was also traveling in his car. There was gridlocked traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel so a Ports Authority Officer was dispatched to get traffic flowing smoothly again. In an effort to ease the gridlock, the Ports Authority Officer motioned with his hand for the defendant to move his car forward. Defendant would not make eye contact with the officer. Because the defendant’s Nissan was blocking traffic, the officer walked over to the defendant and talked with him through his open window and asked him to move his car. The defendant obeyed and pulled over to the side.
When he had already pulled over to the side, the officer asked to see the defendant’s license and registration. The officer was surprised that the defendant had two different last names in the two documents. From the open window, the officer could see a stuffed Alf doll, and a bag with vials inside it.
After calling for back-up, the officer asked the defendant where he had been and the defendant used a street slang word to refer to 42nd Street. It was then that the officer asked the defendant to step out of the car and placed him under arrest.
The defendant and his companion gave statements to the police. In the meantime, the officer searched the car and found that the open bag in the back seat contained 51 vials and matching caps. The stuffed Alf toy contained cocaine and paper used for packaging cocaine.
The defendant in this case was charged with attempted criminal cocaine possession and criminal possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant plea bargained: he was willing to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. After he was convicted consequent to his plea bargain, he was sentenced to a jail term of 3-6 years. It was after he had been sentenced that he appealed on the ground that the vials, the cocaine and the paper should have been suppressed because they were seized during a warrantless search of his car.
The Supreme Court decided to rule on these two cases jointly since the issues in both cases are similar. The only questioned to be determined by the Court was whether the physical evidence in these two cases should be suppressed as fruits of a warrantless search of both the defendants’ cars.
The Court ruled that the physical evidence (the vials, the caps and the crack cocaine) are admissible. They are admissible because even if they were seized without a search warrant, they were not unreasonable searches. A warrantless search is unreasonable only when there is no probable cause.
Here both the officers in the two cases had probable cause for the search. First, both the defendants were in violation of traffic law: one defendant was speeding, the other was obstructing traffic. So the officers had reason to stop their vehicles. Second, defendants in both cases were acting furtively and answered questions evasively; Third, through an open window, the officers could openly and readily see the bags and its contents inside the car. Fourth, the search of the vehicle was consequent to the arrest of the defendants. Fifth, because of the nature of the car and the speed at which the car can escape, waiting for a search warrant would be ill-advised. Contraband inside a vehicle can be speedily disposed of. The search of a vehicle is an exception to the rule that searches should be made only with a warrant.
The Supreme Court reiterated that the searches were justified because probable cause existed. The facts and circumstances known to the police officers warrant a reasonable person to conclude that a crime is being committed. The apprehending police officers were both seasoned police officers who have a long history of apprehending suspects who turned out to be guilty of crack cocaine possession. They are familiar with the vials and caps used in criminal crack cocaine possession and criminal cocaine selling. They have both observed numerous suspects in cases of cocaine possession who have hidden cocaine inside stuffed toys and inside harmless looking household items. They had every reason to believe that the defendants were indeed committing the crimes of criminal crack cocaine possession and were correct to arrest the defendants.
For these reasons the Supreme Court ruled that the searches made in these cases did not violate the prohibition against warrantless searches and seizure. And as such, they are admissible. The trial court’s denial of the motion for suppression of the physical evidence in both cases is upheld and affirmed.
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