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New Exception To The Exclusionary Rule And Fourth Amendment Suppression Issues


PEOPLE V TOLENTINO : New York Court of Appeals,

IMPORTANT NOTE: THE U.S. SUPREME COURT HAD GRANTED CERTIORARI TO HEAR THIS CASE AND ORAL ARGUMENT WAS SET FOR MARCH 21, 2011. ON MARCH 29, 2011 THE SUPREME COURT REVERSED ITS DECISION TO GRANT CERTIORARI AND DISMISSED THE WRIT OF CERTIORARI AS “IMPROVIDENTLY” GRANTED.

2010 NY Slip Op 02643, Decided March 30, 2010

Issue : Whether evidence already possessed by a governmental agency is subject to suppression and the exclusionary rule as a result of an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Held : No, evidence already in possession of a governmental agency is not subject to suppression or the exclusionary rule because of an illegal search and seizure.

On New Year’s day in 2005 the defendant, José Tolentino, was driving his car on Broadway in New York City. The police stopped him for playing music too loudly and ran a computer check with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The check revealed that the defendant’s license was suspended and he was subsequently arrested. As part of his Omnibus motion he sought to suppress his driving record, alleging that the police unlawfully stopped his car and that his driving record was obtained as fruit of a Fourth Amendment violation.

The defendant argued the steps required to obtain a DMV record are the stop of the vehicle and getting the driver’s name or a drivers license number. He further argued that his DMV records would not have been obtained but for the police illegality. The trial court denied his request for a Mapp hearing, holding that an individual does not possess a legitimate expectation of privacy in files maintained by the DMV.

The Defendant pleaded guilty to aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree and received a sentence of 5 years probation. He appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department where the trial court was unanimously affirmed. People v. Tolentino, 59 A.D.3d 298 (1st Dept. 2009).

The New York Court of Appeals held that evidence already in the possession of a governmental agency is not subject to suppression or the exclusionary rule as the result of an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals relied on the case of INS v. Lopez-Mendoza , 468 U.S. 1032 (1984) where the US Supreme Court held that the body or identity of the defendant in a criminal or civil proceeding is never suppressable as a fruit of an unlawful arrest, even if it is conceded that an unlawful arrest, search or interrogation occurred. The Court of Appeals agreed with this reasoning and held that there is no sanction when an illegal arrest only leads to discovery of the man’s identity and that merely leads to the official file or other independent evidence.

The rationale for this exception to the exclusionary rule was that the exclusionary rule enjoins the government from benefiting from evidence it has unlawfully obtained; it does not reach backward to obtained information that was in official hands prior to any illegality.

The Court of Appeals also relied on People v. Pleasant , 54 NY2d 972 (1981) where defendant was illegally arrested in Suffolk County ( surprisingly ) and it was later discovered that he possessed a gun used in a robbery in Bronx County. Suffolk police conveyed this information to Bronx police who retrieved the defendant’s photograph and showed it to the robbery victims, who positively identify the defendant. In that case the Court of Appeals rejected the notion that a photographic identification should be suppressed as the fruit of an illegal arrest because it was only the defendant’s identity that was obtained as a result of the unlawful seizure and the photographs and it was not an exploitation of the antecedent illegality because they were obtained from a source independent of the unlawful arrest. The court analogized that the DMV records in this case were obtained by the police from a source independent of the claimed illegal stop.

The Court of Appeals also distinguished this case from two United States Supreme Court cases: Davis v. Mississippi , 394 U.S. 721, (1969) and Hayes v. Florida , 470 U.S. 811(1985). In those cases the defendants were illegally stopped for the purpose of obtaining evidence – fingerprints – that would connect the defendants to the crimes under investigation. The “identity evidence” was not pre-existing. Additionally, the fingerprints were used not to establish the identities of the individuals apprehended but to connect those individual fingerprints to latent fingerprints recovered from the crime scene.

The Court Of Appeals stated “we merely hold that a defendant may not invoke the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine when the only link between improper police activity and the disputed evidence is that the police learned the defendants name.”