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Court of Appeals Upholds Lower Court Decision Granting Defendant’s Motion to Suppress Evidence – People v Williams, 4 NY3d 535 (2005)


In this case the Appellate Division considered whether it the Supreme Court appropriately granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss drug and traffic charges based on an arrest by  Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority officers.

Two officers of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority were on patrol in one of that city’s housing projects when they observed the defendant driving without a seatbelt. Even though the scope of employment of those officers did not extend to the area where they stopped and questioned the defendant, the officers did so anyway.  Under New York law, officers of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority are classified as peace officers.  They found that the defendant was in possession of cocaine and arrested him. The defendant was indicted for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fifth degree and several violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

The defendant moved to have the charges dismissed on the basis that the arrest of the defendant occurred outside of the officers’ geographical area of employment. As a result, the officers lacked jurisdiction to make the arrest. The People countered by arguing that if the officers were acting outside of their jurisdictional authority, the arrest was still valid because the officers made a citizen’s arrest. The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the charges.  The People appealed.

On appeal the Appellate Division upheld the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the charges.  Because the officers did not have the authority to apprehend an individual for criminal activity outside of their geographical area of employment, the Appellate Division’s reasoning turned on the question as to whether under these circumstances the housing authority officers could make a valid citizen’s arrest.

The law allows private citizens to make arrests for nonfelony offenses such as traffic violations that occur within the county in which the offense was committed, while peace officers can make arrests only within the geographic area of their employment. In this case, if the officers were private citizens, they could have made a valid citizen’s arrest of the defendant for the traffic violation.  However, as housing authority peace officers, they could not.

The Appellate Division found that a peace officer could not essentially extend his authority beyond the limitations defined by the legislature by simply claiming he was doing it as a private citizen and not as a peace officer.  To do so would make the legislative differences between what a peace officer can do as far as arresting someone and what a private citizen can do meaningless.

Thus, the Appellate Division upheld the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the charges against the defendant as the arrest was not legal.

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