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Recently the Appellate Division for the Second Department addressed the validity of vehicle searches in the case of People v. Smith.  While this case involved Criminal Possession of a Weapon, the facts recur in similar fashion in cases involving Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance as well as any case involving an officer’s search of a motor vehicle.

STOPPED AND ARRESTED

In Smith, the facts from the suppression hearing show that on December 12, 2009, a police officer stopped Smith’s car for minor traffic violations (window tint and failing to signal).  Like most traffic stops, the officer approached the driver-side window to speak with the driver, Smith. While there, the officer noted he observed numerous things, such as an open beer bottle, but he did not notice the odor of marijuana. The officer then asked Smith to exit the car to perform field sobriety tests. When Smith exited the car, the officer observed Smith spit something into the bushes.  The officer also stated he smelled marijuana on Smith.  The officer asked Smith to open his mouth and observed “what appeared to be marijuana pieces inside the cracks of his teeth.”  The officer then arrested Smith and searched the area to retrieve what Smith had spit out.  Interestingly, the officer stated he was “probably not” going to arrest Smith but he nonetheless conducted an inventory search of Smith’s car.

OFFICER SEARCHED CAR AND FOUND A GUN

The officer searched Smith’s car, including the center console. The officer noticed the bottom of the center console was loose, lifted the base of the interior of the console, and found a bandana which was wrapped around a semi-automatic handgun.  While the County Court upheld this search as valid, the Appellate Division reversed this decision and found the search was invalid.

ON APPEAL, THE SEARCH IS RULED INVALID

The Appellate Division noted the established principle that an “automobile exception” exists to the normal requirement that a warrant justify any search.  Nonetheless, in this case, the officer could not rely on this exception to justify his search.  Why not? Searches by officers “must be justified in their inception and be reasonably related in scope and intensity to circumstances which rendered their initiation possible.” In this case, there was no probable cause to search Smith’s car. The officer stated he never smelled marijuana at the side of the car while Smith was still in the driver’s seat, the officer never found what had been spit out by Smith, the officer never sought to recover what he observed in Smith’s mouth, and the officer admitted that he searched the car despite the fact that he had not discovered any “evidence for the marijuana.”

WEAPONS CONVICTION IS OVERTURNED

The Appellate Division also reversed the County Court’s decision to uphold the discovery of the weapon as an “inevitable discovery.”  Smith’s conviction for Criminal Possession of a Weapon was reversed.

WHAT CAN BE LEARNED FROM THIS?

This decision illustrates the importance and benefit of having knowledgeable and competent representation familiar with the ins-and-outs of the laws on search and seizure.