In this case the Court of Appeals considered whether the lower court rightly relied on the decision in People v Williams, 4 NY3d 535  as the basis for granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence recovered in the vehicle search.
In People v. Williams, 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 seat belt. The officers found that the defendant was in possession of cocaine and arrested him. The defendant moved to have the cocaine suppressed. Under New York law, the housing authority officers are considered peace officers. However, the arrest of the defendant occurred outside of the officers’ geographical area of employment. The People argued that the arrest was a citizen’s arrest. The court rejected the People’s argument and granted the defendant’s motion because the Housing Authority officers were not acting as citizens but were acting under the color of the law. Because the arrest occurred outside of the officers’ area of authority, it was not valid.
The events that led to the arrest of the defendant in People v. Page began when a federal marine interdiction agent, using the emergency lights on this truck, stopped the vehicle in which the defendant was a passenger due to erratic driving. The driver pulled over the vehicle and the marine agent, who sat in his truck behind the pulled over vehicle, contacted Buffalo Police. Under New York law, federal marine interdiction agents are not classified as peace officers.
When a Buffalo Police officer arrived, he along with the marine agent, approached the vehicle. The police officer spoke to the occupants. When additional Buffalo Police Officers arrived, the marine agent left. The marine agent never spoke to the occupants of the vehicle.
Upon searching the vehicle, the police found a weapon. All three of the occupants were arrested. The defendant was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the weapon on the basis of unlawful search and seizure. The basis of the motion was that the marine agent did not have search and seizure authority. The defendant also argued that pursuant to People v Williams, the traffic stop was not a valid citizen’s arrest because the marine agent used his emergency lights to effectuate the stop.
The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the weapon. The People appealed, and the Appellate Division upheld the Supreme Court’s decision. The Appellate Division concluded by activating his emergency lights to pull the driver of the vehicle over and approaching the car with the Buffalo police officer, the federal marine interdiction agent acted under the color of law with all the accouterments of official authority and could not effect a citizen’s arrest.”
On appeal, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the Appellate Division, concluding that People v. Williams did not apply because unlike the officers in Williams, the marine agent is not considered a peace officer and could not have improperly circumvented the jurisdictional limitations on the powers. In other words, the agent’s conduct here did not violate the prescribed limits on a peace officer’s arrest powers because he was not a peace officer. Thus, the marine officer actions did amount to a valid citizen’s arrest. As a result, the Court of Appeals denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the gun.
The lesson here is that an officer who does not have peace officer authority can make a citizen’s arrest, even when he is arguably acting “under the color of the law.” An officer who does have peace authority cannot make a valid citizen’s arrest when acting “under the color of the law.”