New York: Federal Court Overturns Search on a Hunch

The Newspaper
by The Newspaper

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.


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


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  • Junebug Junebug on Sep 12, 2011

    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.

  • KalapanaBlack KalapanaBlack on Sep 12, 2011

    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...

    • See 2 previous
    • Don1967 Don1967 on Sep 13, 2011
      @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. 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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