Recently, a New York appellate court addressed a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress evidence based on an unlawful search and seizure. According to the record, a Lieutenant observed a vehicle with its headlights and engine on, parked between gas pumps. The officer testified that he noticed the vehicle because he thought it was unusual for the car to be at the location while the gas station was closed. When he passed the vehicle, he noticed that the defendant was slumped forward over the steering wheel. He approached the defendant and banged on his window to check if he was okay. When the officer did not get a response, he opened the door and shook the defendant. During this time, the officer detected the smell of an alcoholic beverage and arrested the defendant for DWI.
The defendant pleaded guilty and then appealed the court’s judgment based on a constitutional violation. The defendant argued that the Lieutenant did not have probable cause to open the car’s door and lean inside. He asserted that these actions amounted to an unlawful search.
Under New York law, police officers may approach a stationary vehicle to request information in situations where there is “objective, credible reason” for doing so. The law does not provide a clear definition of what constitutes an “objective, credible reason.” Determining whether an action meets this standard requires the court to balance the government’s interest against an individual’s right to security and privacy. Courts often cite public policy and safety when evaluating the lawfulness of an officer’s conduct. However, if police officers approach with an accusatory mindset, they need to justify their approach with suspicion of wrongdoing.
In this case, the court reasoned that the Lieutenant did not stop a moving vehicle but rather approached a stationary vehicle parked at a closed gas station. The court found that the officer was engaged in his public service function when he approached the vehicle and opened the door after the defendant did not respond to the Lieutenant’s banging on the car’s window. As such, the court found that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress because the Lieutenant was not engaged in his law enforcement capacity when he leaned into the car.
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