By on September 12, 2011

Police may not pull over a car simply because two passengers are riding in the back seat, according to a September 2 ruling of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York. On December 30, 2009, a trio of New York Police Department officers had a hunch that a passing gold-colored Ford Crown Victoria with New Jersey license plates might secretly have been charging for rides.

The vehicle broke no traffic laws, but the officers became suspicious because in the dark at 1:30am, the officers only saw dark silhouettes of people in the back seat — and nobody in the front passenger seat. At trial, the officers were unable to provide a description of the vehicle, or identify any unusual activity from its occupants. None had ever seen this Crown Vic before. Officer Trent Narra testified that he had a “hunch” that the car was violating the New York City Administrative Code that fines individuals who operate cab service on the side without paying the $686,000 fee for a taxi medallion.

When the car was pulled over, the three officers surrounded it. Passenger Devon Bristol did not wish to remain inside the Ford, so he began exiting the vehicle. He was not ordered to stay in the car. As he got out, Bristol brushed against Sergeant Eric Konoski, who claimed that he felt an object “consistent with a firearm.” Konoski then ordered Bristol to stop, tackled him to the ground, handcuffed and searched him. Konoski found a 9mm Hi-Point pistol.

Once they had the gun violation, the NYPD officers dropped all interest in the Crown Vic driver and ignored the question of whether it was an unlicensed livery cab or not. They did not even run a license or registration check. The court blasted the justification given for the initial traffic stop.

“By the officers’ own admissions, they had no way — based on their observations of the driver and passengers — of determining whether the car’s occupants were engaged in lawful activity or a traffic violation,” Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis wrote. “To permit the seating positions of passengers alone to create reasonable suspicion would expose many innocent travelers to near-random searches…. The officers further testified that Crown Victorias are commonly used as personal, not-for-hire vehicles as well… The court does not credit any suggestion that seeing a car from New Jersey driving in Brooklyn is anything but commonplace, and finds that even in combination with other factors the car’s out-of-state plates are innocuous.”

With the traffic stop suppressed, evidence gathered from the search of Bristol was ruled inadmissible. He was released Wednesday on a $10,000 bond. In footnotes, Judge Garaufis questioned the NYPD’s credibility in the case.

“Sergeant Konoski’s demeanor at the suppression hearing was defensive and his answers about his conduct before and during the vehicle stop were less than forthright,” Garaufis wrote. “The court was troubled by the officers’ coordinated falsification of their memo book entries, all three of which incorrectly gave the address of a nearby public housing project as the site of the arrest. Furthermore, Sergeant Konoski has been the subject of a series of departmental investigations into his conduct as a police officer, including his improper conduct with regard to searches and seizures…. The government has informed the court that the NYPD is currently investigating Sergeant Konoski and Officer Narra on charges that include entering a woman’s home without authorization, making improper memo book entries, and corruption.”

A copy of the decision is available in a 121k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File US v. Bristol (US District Court, Eastern District New York, 9/2/2011)

[Courtesy: Thenewspaper.com]

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40 Comments on “New York: Federal Court Overturns Search on a Hunch...”


  • avatar
    tekdemon

    That was definitely a nonsensical reason to stop a car but apparently the guy who was arrested has a felony record and was illegally carrying a 9mm so on the flipside it’s probably not a good thing that his case is basically going to be chucked.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    OK, but what was the deal with the convicted felon illegally carrying a concealed weapon on his person in Brooklyn at 1:30AM? This isn’t a case where an upstanding citizen was minding his own business and got harassed by over zealous police officers. Those kinds of things do happen, but that isn’t what happened here.

    How do I know that the person in question was a convicted felon? From reading the linked court report, not from reading the blog entry. That little detail was left out by The Newspaper.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      This isn’t a case where an upstanding citizen was minding his own business and got harassed by over zealous police officers.

      Ernesto Miranda was a dirtbag and a felon, who spent most of his life in and out of the justice system. He died from being stabbed in a bar fight. But today, we have the Miranda warning because he was improperly questioned.

      It doesn’t matter whether the Bristol was a sinner or a saint. What matters was that “reasonable suspicion” is required for a Terry stop, and it’s pretty obvious that the cops didn’t have “reasonable suspicion” in this case.

      A lot of these cases that get tossed are ultimately lost as the result of the police’s impatience — they act with insufficient evidence or fail to get warrants when they should get warrants. Maybe this one will teach some of them a lesson.

      • 0 avatar
        John Horner

        Unfortunately it isn’t the errant police officers who pay the price for errors in our odd system for enforcing procedural rules, it is the unsuspecting next victim of the criminal who gets cut loose. Our system punishes police errors by setting criminals free. I guess the assumption is that cops want convictions and will follow the rules if they are denied those convictions, but it is a very indirect feedback loop.

        Much better would be a systems of fines and penalties for officers and/or district attorneys who disobey the rules. But, that isn’t the system we have. No sane person would start with a clean sheet of paper and end up designing a criminal justice system which works as the US’ current system does. But, we don’t have a designed system. We have a system which has evolved as a series of patch work elements built upon one another.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Our system punishes police errors by setting criminals free.

        Requiring the cops to heed the Fourth Amendment isn’t “punishment”. Respecting the Constitution is part of their jobs.

        Much better would be a systems of fines and penalties for officers and/or district attorneys who disobey the rules.

        I wouldn’t say that violating the Constitution is better in any way whatsoever. The Terry stop requirements are already fairly minimal, and the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment already extends broad powers to law enforcement. If you want to lower the bar even further, then you may as well just chuck the Bill of Rights into a shredder and pretend that that whole 18th century revolution thing never happened.

      • 0 avatar
        John Horner

        Pch101 said: “Maybe this one will teach some of them a lesson.”

        Teach them a lesson is what I paraphrased as punishment.

        I don’t think police should be able to ignore established procedures and protections. I do think, however, that our system is far from perfect in how it achieves the objective of protecting rights.

        Why is it that a person such as myself who wants to talk about how we could do a better job instantly becomes accused of wanting to revert to 18th century norms?

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Teach them a lesson is what I paraphrased as punishment.

        It isn’t punishment. Requiring the cops to abide by the rules is just that — making them abide from the rules. They should take note, accept the schooling and be sure to use appropriate procedure when they are out in the field.

        I do think, however, that our system is far from perfect in how it achieves the objective of protecting rights.

        Nobody claimed that it as perfect. But the Constitution does not permit unreasonable search and seizure, and actions such as these violate that principle.

        And don’t misstate what happened here. This ruling didn’t acquit the defendant, it tossed out the evidence that came from the bad search. That’s exactly what is supposed to happen in a country that respects the rights of defendants and the procedures for making an arrest. In the future, the cops need to build a better case for reasonable suspicion prior to making a stop.

        Why is it that a person such as myself who wants to talk about how we could do a better job instantly becomes accused of wanting to revert to 18th century norms?

        Your idea of a “better job” sits very plainly outside of the Constitution and 200+ years of its interpretation by the courts. We have rules against most random stops, and we have those rules for a reason, namely because this is how we have come to interpret the Fourth Amendment.

        A Terry stop and the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment are not licenses for the cops to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. As it stands now, it takes little to justify a stop, so asking the cops to obtain the bare minimum of suspicion prior to making a stop isn’t much to ask.

  • avatar
    Advo

    “$686,000 fee for a taxi medallion”

    Have they ever heard that if they restrict trade and drive the price up too high, (organized) crime takes advantage of the opportunity to provide it more cheaply?

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      They discovered that if they don’t restrict the supply of taxis in NYC, every vehicle becomes a taxicab and there’s no room for other drivers on the (extremely) limited amount of roadway in the city. Then the quality of the taxicabs takes a race to the bottom as everyone seeks to reduce operating costs as far as they will go. Suddenly the roads are choked with twenty-year-old shitboxes held together with duct tape.

      Seriously, you’re acting like someone just hit their head one day and came up with the medallion system just for the hell of it. No, it was created in response to a problem, and if you want to chuck it you need to figure out a different solution to that problem.

    • 0 avatar

      NY Trivia: This is not a “fee”. There are an artificially limited number of taxi medallions in NY City. I’m not up on the actual number but it was frozen over 50 years ago. In theory, only yellow cars with a medallion can accept street hails, and they are supposed to cover all of NY City.

      In reality, NO yellow car will willingly go off Manhattan Island, laws or not. This problem is solved by the fact that hundreds of “black cars” (usually Panther based :) ) will solicit you if you are wearing a suit. Just make sure to agree on price before getting in.

      The yellow cars are leased by shift to the drivers, who have to hustle to make money, which is why they don’t want out of Manhattan…no return ride fare, whereas in Manhattan, they can usually get fares in all directions. These cars go 24/7 with different drivers.

      If you get into an accident, you are screwed, as the medallion is always “collateral” for outstanding loans, so all the victim may have is the insurance policy…and the insurers who cover Yellow Cabs are a worst case scenario….I’ve litigated against them.

      It is a system that should not exist, but for the fact the established players have a huge property interest (the 600k medallion) and play the political game well. There is always a slight shortage of cabs because of this and hailing one is both an art form and street warfare.

      Meanwhile, most of non white, non yuppie New York that does not live on the sacred isle of the Manhattoes relies on less regulated, ad hoc, “car service”.

      • 0 avatar
        Advo

        Thanks for the insight. I like reading about how things are in other places. I’m going to have to look at my personal insurance and start assuming more than the other party’s insurance may not properly cover an accident.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Being inconvenienced for 5 minutes in a traffic stop because of a cop’s “hunch” is a small price to pay for safer public spaces that we all share. Why do civil libertarians and judges make such a big deal out of it? It’s not like the gun-carrying felon poor helpless victim in this case was beaten senseless, or whisked off to Siberia.

    • 0 avatar
      I_Like_Pie

      The Bill of Rights disagree with you

    • 0 avatar
      ElSnuggles

      Civil Libertarians and Judges make a big deal out of it because it’s precisely what the British did prior to the revolution. They could search you, your house, or your carriage without cause and look for a reason to lock you up.

      I hate that this felon got away with his illegal carry, but the people who should be blamed are the officers, not our laws. Their laziness caused this, not the protections codified in the Constitution.

    • 0 avatar
      drylbrg

      It is a huge price to pay. Remember the quote from Ben Franklin, “Those that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        I agree. There’s always some tension between safety and civil liberties and the fact that we seem far too willing nowadays to bend on civil liberties more than on safety is a little dangerous in my mind. It’s a fairly slippery slope that may be difficult to reverse if carried too far.

    • 0 avatar
      Contrarian

      And you’d almost always be let go as soon as they see your papers “sind alle korrekt”

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      don1967, that’s the fine line that divides the US of A from P.R. China. In the former, you find gun carrying felons being dismissed, when his constitutional right was violated. In the latter, only the state police and military are allowed to carry guns catching all the bad guys. Sounds like you should start packing and move there.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Meanwhile, people can be snatched off the street on any corner of the globe and be bottled up in Guantanamo indefinitely without a hearing or trial. What a strange system we have.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        That’s why any such person is typically classified as a ‘terrorist’ or ‘unlawful combatant’ (and not, for example, as a lawful or enemy combatant), for this designation essentially places them outside the rules and principles of law in any binding sense (and hence as outside the domain of legal and perhaps even moral responsibilities and obligations towards such ‘persons’). Thus, strictly speaking the ‘war on terror’ should not really be called a ‘war’ at all, for believe it or not, war falls under the general category of organized or lawful violence, while conflicts with groups labelled as ‘unlawful combatants’ or ‘terrorists’ is typically thought to fall outside the boundaries of such organized conflict or warfare (and hence outside of such things as the Geneva Convention).

        Problems arise from this kind of ‘classification,’ however, when they are carried out by fiat (e.g. unilaterally, as it were, by some government or state) without the agreement or consensus or of other legal or sovereign states. This obviously raises questions about who is doing the classifying (and detaining) and why, a touchy subject I know, but one that nevertheless should be openly and critically discussed (and not swept under some rug).

      • 0 avatar
        don1967

        Meanwhile, people can be snatched off the street on any corner of the globe and be bottled up in Guantanamo indefinitely without a hearing or trial. What a strange system we have.

        Ain’t that the truth…

        References to Ben Franklin and the Bill of Rights and slippery slopes to Communist China/Nazi Germany are entirely appropriate to a discussion of Gitmo. But a 5-minute traffic stop? My gawd, if that’s such a grievous violation of personal freedom then how have Americans survived for so many years under the terrible oppression of red lights, pedestrian crosswalks, and toll bridges?

      • 0 avatar
        Bryce

        Yeah theres no law protecting anyone from American terrorists in uniform

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        …References to Ben Franklin and the Bill of Rights and slippery slopes to Communist China/Nazi Germany are entirely appropriate to a discussion of Gitmo. But a 5-minute traffic stop?…

        I get what you mean, after all, is such a stop a big deal if it results in an illegal gun being removed from the hands of a criminal…but yes, it does become a big deal. We have, or are supposed to have protections against such behavior. Virtually everybody knows of someone who was abused by the heavy hand of the law. Allowing such erosion of your rights is usually a one way ratchet and once you begin to give back these rights, where do you end up? While it is a shame that sometimes the bad guys get off, it is a fair trade for preserving the rights and freedoms of the good guys. Think about the last time you had a BS traffic stop. If you didn’t get a citation, you were probably glad and went on your way, forgetting about the fact that the cop just made up some excuse to pull you over. What if he decided to take you in just because you had plates from a state he did not like, or a political sticker on your car that differed from his viewpoint. Crap like that happens way too often in some rural areas. And the centers of detention will have you wish that you had been given six citations…

    • 0 avatar
      don1967

      Virtually everybody knows of someone who was abused by the heavy hand of the law

      That’s the thing… I don’t. Maybe it’s because I live in Canada, or because I don’t carry a gun and a crack pipe, but in 25+ years of driving I have never been harassed or unduly delayed by the police. Nor has anybody I know. The worst complaints I ever hear are about the occasional BS charge during a zero-tolerance campaign, but even those are almost always written down by the cops to avoid demerit points.

      Different cultures maybe…

  • avatar

    Where’s the Panther Love?

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      You can’t fool the cops. They know that Panthers are fleet queens:

      “First, the Officers testified based on their training and experience that large sedans such as Crown Victorias are among the types of vehicles frequently used as livery cabs.”

      Unfortunately for them, the judges don’t read TTAC: “On this record, at this level of generality, the type of vehicle is a weak factor which does little to contribute to the reasonableness of the Officers’ suspicion.”

      Justice really is blind. How could they not know that virtually nobody buys Crown Vics just for fun?

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        “Unfortunately for them, the judges don’t read TTAC”

        “Justice really is blind. How could they not know that virtually nobody buys Crown Vics just for fun?”

        I’m not sure how judges would interpret ‘Panther Love,’ but it might not be good…

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I’m not sure how judges would interpret ‘Panther Love,’ but it might not be good…

        No, I can’t see that ending well, either.

        Whatever it is, hopefully it isn’t as bad as is Muskrat Love:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBYV_7a0FQs

  • avatar
    detlump

    I gather you haven’t been stopped lately on a hunch. I love these arguments “small price to pay” – attitudes like that will result in the loss of all our freedoms.

    Police check points, “papers please”, random searches all fall in this line of thinking.

    This was a bogus stop and the officers knew it, they bet that it was an illegal livery vehicle and lost. Thankfully the judges got it right and protected our freedom, all too rare these days.

    • 0 avatar
      Dynamic88

      My guess (and I may be wrong) is that the illegal livery vehicle was the pretext they came up with for the stop.

      I think the cops suspected the people in the car (and their suspicion would seem to have been validated by the fact that one passenger was gun carrying felon) but couldn’t come up with a valid “reason” to stop them. “Hey, there’s two guys in the back seat, based on that I think one of them is a felon with a gun” – isn’t going to work. But the cops thought “Two guys in back = illegal livery” just might fly in court. It didn’t. Thankfully.

  • avatar
    MrIncognito

    Something about a constitutional right to be secure in our persons against unreasonable search and seizure without due process of law.

    Why not just let cops wander through your house, too? I bet they would stop all sorts of crime if they randomly searched every house in the neighborhood, maybe browsed through your financial documents, or randomly put GPS devices on cars to issue speeding tickets. None of that is particularly inconvenient, either.

  • avatar
    graham

    For those readers who are in the “small price to pay” camp, this is heads-up that your local police are currently searching your beige Camry on the suspicion you purchased a John Mayer CD on Amazon and failed to pay sales tax to your local jurisdiction.

    • 0 avatar
      cfclark

      Don’t give the California legislature any (more) crazy ideas.

    • 0 avatar
      don1967

      For those readers who are in the “small price to pay” camp, this is heads-up that your local police are currently searching your beige Camry on the suspicion you purchased a John Mayer CD on Amazon and failed to pay sales tax to your local jurisdiction.

      Maybe where you live. But where I live this sort of tale is only told by people who have criminal rap sheets as long as their arm. I have never experienced this sort of harassment myself, nor has anybody I know.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        It’s the principle the matters here, for once the principle is set (as a precedent) and this kind of practice becomes entrenched and ‘accepted’ (as part of the culture), then it increases the possibility of corruption and abuse of power. It’s true that we generally don’t see this kind of thing much here (I live in Canada as well), but the long tradition and general culture of respecting civil rights likely has a great deal to do with that. Erode civil rights and the tradition, culture, and practices can very quickly change, and not for the better.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I live out in the country, but have to drive through small towns to get to my job. Everybody knows one of them is nothing but a speed trap, but at least they don’t try to pull this crap.

  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack

    For those of you who are complaining that “yet another criminal is back on the street…” consider that the only reason he is is because the police didn’t follow the rules put forth in the Constitution. There’s a reason for that little document, and it’s so that laws work both ways.

    And, yeah, police leafing through everything you own to find anything even slightly illegal when you’re not using them isn’t inconvenient, either. Just open up your banks statements, phone records, web browser histories, vehicular black boxes, and GPS tracking histories to us. We’ll look when you’re sleeping. All very convenient.

    I hear the meals in prison (where EVERYBODY will end up if this thought is followed through to its logical conclusion) are served very conveniently. Of course, there wouldn’t be anybody to serve them…

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      The Constitution established certain principles. The Supreme Court over the years have turned those principles into “rules”. Constitution thumpers often muddy the waters between the two.

      Note that the Founding Fathers envisioned nothing along the lines of the rules of evidence which are followed in the US today. Miranda rights didn’t exist until 1966, and the exclusionary rule for evidence was created in 1914, fully 127 years after the US Constitution was ratified and contrary to hundreds of years of common law.

      http://www.lewrockwell.com/kinsella/kinsella14.html

      So no, the “rules” were not “put forth in the Constitution”.

      • 0 avatar
        Dynamic88

        And you ask why you’re accused of wanting to return to the past – centuries past. Black people couldn’t vote when the founders were alive. Does it follow that it’s UNCON to let blacks vote?

      • 0 avatar
        don1967

        The Constitution established certain principles. The Supreme Court over the years have turned those principles into “rules”. Constitution thumpers often muddy the waters between the two.

        We have the same problem here in Canada. Fundamental principles of law and justice get bent and warped over the years until they are no longer recognizable even to the people who formed them.


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