Pat-Down Searches and the Search Incident to Arrest Doctrine
New York Court of Appeals
People v. Reid
2014 Slip Op 08759
Decided on December 16, 2014
Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer
Issue: Whether a pat-down search that resulted in the recovery of illegal contraband was incident to an arrest when a police officer believed he had probable cause to arrest a driver for one crime, but because of the search, arrested the driver for a different crime.
Summary: This case discussed the search incident to arrest doctrine as first articulated in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969) and United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). The “search incident to a lawful arrest,” also known as search incident to arrest, is a legal doctrine that allows police officers to search an arrestee’s person or the area within his immediate control without a search warrant. In this case, a police officer had probable cause to arrest a driver for driving while intoxicated. However, the officer ultimately arrested the driver for possessing a weapon when a search of the driver’s person led the officer to recover a switchblade knife from the driver’s pocket. The Court discussed whether this specific search was incident to an arrest, and ultimately held that it was not.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that a pat-down search conducted by a police officer, which resulted in him finding a switchblade knife in the defendant’s pocket, was not incident to the defendant’s arrest. While the police officer believed he had probable cause to arrest the defendant for DUI before conducting the pat-down search, the defendant would not have been arrested for possessing a weapon had it not been for the evidence recovered from the search.
Facts: While driving on a roadway, a police officer witnessed a vehicle in front of him cross double lines into a lane of oncoming traffic, swerve in and out of its lane without using a signal, and make a right turn without using a signal. The police officer proceeded to stop the car and approached the driver. According to his trial testimony, the police officer stated that the defendant had “very watery” eyes and “disheveled” clothing. He also testified that he saw plastic cups in the car, and smelled an odor of alcohol.
The officer asked the defendant if he had been drinking, and received what he believed to be an odd answer: the defendant admitted to having a drink around 4:00 PM; however, it was already 5:00 AM when the police officer made this traffic stop. These observations gave the police officer probable cause to arrest the defendant for driving while intoxicated. It is important to note that the police officer did not conduct a sobriety test (and it was later discovered that the defendant’s blood alcohol content was zero).
The police officer asked the defendant to step out of the car, and proceeded to pat him down, finding a switchblade knife in the defendant’s pocket. The officer then arrested the defendant. According to trial testimony, the police officer made it clear that it was only after he found the switchblade in the defendant’s pocket that he made the decision to immediately arrest the defendant for criminal possession of a weapon. The officer testified that he would not have made an arrest otherwise.
At a suppression hearing, the defendant made a motion to suppress the knife as evidence, but his motion was denied by the court. The court held that the pat-down search conducted by the officer was valid as a search incident to a lawful arrest, and the defendant plead guilty to criminal possession of a weapon. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s holding regarding the search, and held that because the police officer had probable cause to make an arrest for the DUI, “it was irrelevant whether [the police officer] subjectively intended to make such an arrest.” See People v. Reid, 104 A.D.3d 58 (1st Dep’t 2013). However, the Court of Appeals did not agree, and reversed the Appellate Division’s decision. It granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence and dismissed the indictment against the defendant.
Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s decision, holding that a police pat-down search of a defendant that led the officer to recover a knife from the defendant’s pocket was not incident to the arrest. In reaching its holding, the Court did not dispute that the defendant could have been lawfully arrested for DUI. It also did not find that the search conducted by the officer was unlawful, since it closely preceded the arrest. Furthermore, it did not take issue with the officer arresting the defendant based on the possession of the weapon rather than for DUI. However, the Court did find an issue with the police officer’s pat-down search of the defendant, concluding that but for the search, the officer would not have had any evidence to support the arrest. Therefore, but for this search, the police officer did not have probable cause to arrest the defendant for criminal possession of a weapon.
The search incident to lawful arrest exception to the general search warrant requirement was first discussed in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), where the U.S. Supreme Court held that an arresting officer may conduct a warrantless search of the arrestee and the area within the arrestee’s immediate control. The Chimel opinion determined that officer safety and the need to prevent the destruction of evidence were two justifications for allowing police officers to conduct this type of warrantless search. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court held that during a lawful custodial arrest, a full search of an individual constitutes a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. It also held that a full search of one’s person following a lawful arrest is an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. However, a search must be incident to an actual arrest. A search cannot be conducted based on probable cause that might have led to an arrest. See People v. Evans, 43 N.Y.2d 160, 165 (1977).
In the present case, the People argued that the police officer’s search was justifiable as incident to a lawful arrest. They argued that the search was exempt from the search warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment, citing the Robinson opinion as authority. However, the Court of Appeals found that the People failed to show how the police officer’s pat-down search was justified. The People did not prove that the officer had reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant presented any danger to him, or that illegal contraband would be discovered.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the Appellate Division incorrectly applied Fourth Amendment case law, which has held that “a stop or arrest is valid where it is supported by the necessary level of suspicion or probable cause, whatever the actual motive for the officer’s action.” See Whren v. United States (517 U.S. 806 (1996), People v. Robinson (97 N.Y.2d 341 (2001). In the present case, it was the search that led the officer to make an arrest that he otherwise would not have made. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the officer’s search of the driver’s pockets should have followed an arrest for DUI (for which the officer had probable cause) in order for it to be reasonable under the search incident to arrest doctrine. See Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113 (1998).