Appellate Court Overturns Conviction When Defendant’s Jacket Searched Without a Warrant

First Department

In People v Morales, 2015 NY Slip Op 01190, the First Department, Appellate Court revisited the law regarding search incident to lawful arrest.

Generally speaking, the government must satisfy two separate requirements to justify a warrantless search of a container incident to an arrest. The first requirement is that the search is conducted during the arrest or immediately after the arrest, and is a search that is in the grabbable reach of the arrestee, and the second requirement is the presence of exigent circumstances. The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, has recognized two interests underlying the exigency requirement: 1) the safety of the public and the arresting officer, and 2) the protection of evidence from destruction or concealment.

In Morales, On February 29, 2008, at around 9:00 p.m., Police Officer William Svenstrup and his partner responded to a 911 call reporting that a suspicious man was inside a Restaurant. When the officers arrived, the manager greeted then outside the restaurant and told them that Mr. Morales, who was in the bar area of the restaurant, appeared to be trying to steal from women’s purses. The officers entered the restaurant and asked defendant to step outside with them.

As they exited the restaurant, Mr. Morales turned around and placed both his hands inside his jacket pockets. The officers grabbed defendant’s arms and a struggle ensued as defendant ignored the officers’ request to remove his hands from his pockets. By this time, five or six additional officers had arrived on the scene and subdued defendant. Mr. Morales was then handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. Meanwhile, Mr. Morales’ jacket, which had fallen off during the struggle, was resting on the trunk of the police car. While Morales was sitting in the back of the police car with handcuffs on, the officers searched the jacket pockets and found seven envelopes containing drugs, and a box cutter.

The Court in Morales decided that the jacket was unquestionably outside Mr. Morales’ grabbable area at the time of the search as he was was sitting handcuffed inside a police car while the jacket was outside lying on the vehicle’s trunk. As a result, the jacket was in the exclusive control of the police and there was no reasonable possibility that Mr. Morales could have reached it. Furthermore, the officers failed to testify that exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search of the jacket existed at the time of the search so as to excuse the warrant requirement. Officer Svenstrup did not testify that the jacket was searched out of fear for the officers’ safety or for the integrity of any destructible evidence.

Therefore, since the jacket was outside of the reach of the handcuffed, and detained Morales, and there was no evidence that there was any exigency to preserve evidence or the safety of the officers or the public at the time of the search, the drugs and box cutter must be suppressed and the indictment dismissed.

Read the original decision here.
People v Morales

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