People v. Cunningham
Court Discusses Probable Cause of a Warrantless Search
The defendants were arrested and charged after the officers went to an apartment belonging to the defendants where one of the defendants tried to dispose of narcotics on the fire escape. The narcotics on the fire escape were heroin which was stored in 1,424 balloons. Within the apartment room the officers found small quantities of marijuana and cocaine inside of the apartment along with persons around a card table. The defendants along with the other persons in the apartment were arrested. The defendants were convicted of criminal possession of a dangerous drug in second degree, and they appealed. The defendant appealed on the ground that the officer did not have probable cause to search the apartment without a warrant and in the alternative that their sentence was excessive.
The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court analysed the circumstances of the arrest to determine whether there was probable cause. Probable cause exists if the facts and circumstance known would cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed. The officer does not need to be certain that a crime has been committed but he needs to have a reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime was committed. The police officers proceeded to the apartment when the radio dispatch that shots were fired from the apartment room and it was stated as a known narcotics location. The police had probable cause to enter the apartment and conduct a warrantless search based on the fact that one of the officer observed in a basket filled with narcotics was on the fire escape. There was a need for immediate action of the police as there was evidence that the defendants attempted to conceal the evidence on the fire escape, hence a delayed reaction would not be the best decision.
The defendants in the alternative challenged the sentence imposed as it was excessive. The defendants were indicted for a Class A felony. If the defendant was convicted of a dangerous drug in the first degree which she was indicted for they would have been sentenced to a maximum of life imprisonment. They were employed an erroneous heroin distribution and admitted that it was not the first time working there. Therefore, the sentence was not considered excessive taking into consideration the quantity of heroin and their experience.
The minority opinion was of the view that the conviction should have been reversed as there was no probable cause to enter the apartment of the defendants. The detective suspected that the ballons contained heroin but he did not know with certainty that the balloons were not being used as party accessories or heroin receptacles. The police officers could have secured the destruction of the heroin without entering the apartment of the defendants. Additionally, the defendants sentence was excessive as upon a plea of guilty guilty of criminal possession of a dangerous drug in the second degree and sentencing her to an indeterminate term of incarceration not to exceed four years.
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