NY Court of Appeals Rules on Limits to Warrantless Search of Purse
On May 23, 2008, police officers responded to a burglary reported in a Bronx apartment building. The 911 caller described the suspects as two Latino males, around 5'9" to 5'11".
Two officers saw a Latino woman and man in the lobby. The building superintendent, also in the lobby, pointed at the pair and made a face that the officers "interpreted as a request for the police to stop them," according to court documents. The police questioned the woman, Josefina Jimenez, and found her answers suspicious: "while she initially stated that she was there to visit a friend, she then claimed she was in search of a notary, but could provide neither names nor apartment numbers associated therewith. There were 'No Trespassing' signs posted in the lobby."
By this time, at least four other officers had arrived on the scene. They arrested Jimenez and the man for trespassing. One officer took Jimenez's purse off her shoulder, opened it, and found a loaded handgun. A jury convicted Jimenez of criminal possession of a weapon and criminal trespassing in the first degree--first degree because of the firearm.
The search that led to the gun, however, was unconstitutional, according to the state's highest court. The New York Court of Appeals ruled, in a 4-3 split decision released on Tuesday, that the circumstances surrounding Jimenez's arrest did not give police the right to search her purse without a warrant.
All warrantless searches are presumed unreasonable; prosecutors have to prove why a specific case is an exception to the rule. New York's constitution has two requirements for warrantless searches: First, the search must be, as the court puts it, "not significantly divorced in time or location from the arrest"; second and more importantly, there must be pressing circumstances to justify the search. The court has established that such circumstances must concern "the safety of the public and the arresting
officer" and "the protection of evidence from destruction or concealment."
The court's majority concluded that the search of Jimenez's purse did not meet this second standard.
"Our constitutional privacy protections demand a more robust evidentiary showing to invoke this exception to the warrant requirement," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote for the majority.
The arresting officers did not testify that they feared for their "safety or for the integrity of any destructible evidence." Several other officers were nearby, and Jimenez and her companion were cooperative. Additionally, Jimenez's trespassing was not necessarily tied to the crime officers were responding to.
"There was simply nothing connecting defendant or her companion to the burglary," Lippman wrote. "Besides a common ethnicity, there was no evidence that they matched the radio run description of the burglary suspects. Furthermore, the hearing testimony demonstrates that defendant was arrested for trespass, without any reasonable basis to suspect that she participated in the alleged burglary."
On this point, the minority diverged. The officers "did have reason, by virtue of the superintendent's actions, to suspect defendant, and defendant only heightened their suspicions by her unsatisfactory answers to their questions," Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam countered in the dissent. "Reasonable minds could infer that the police suspected defendant of being involved in the burglary and that her heavy handbag, held tightly against her body, gave rise to an objective apprehension that defendant might have a weapon that presented a safety risk to the officers."
The majority, ruling that the gun possession evidence should have been suppressed, vacated Jimenez's criminal possession conviction. By removing the deadly weapon aspect, the court bumped Jimenez's trespassing conviction down from first degree to second degree.
Next: the text of the court's decision.