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Reasonable Suspicion: Police Must Possess A Sufficient Level Of Knowledge With Specific And Articulable Facts In Order To Conduct A Stop And Frisk


criminal appeals reasonable suspicion in order to conduct stop and frisk

People v. Brannon

16 NY3d 595

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: May 5, 2011

Police Must Have Reasonable Suspicion That Criminal Activity Is At Hand In Order To Conduct A Stop And Frisk

Summary: Defendants Brannon and Fernandez argue that the Police did not have reasonable suspicion to believe that they were carrying gravity knives. In these cases, the Court of Appeals decided that the level of knowledge Police must possess before he or she has reasonable suspicion to believe an individual possesses a gravity knife in order to authorize and conduct a stop and frisk.

The Court of Appeals held that an Officer must have reason to believe that the object is a gravity knife based on his or her training and/or observable, identifiable characteristics of a knife. In addition, an individual may not be detained merely because he or she is seen in possession of an object that appears to be a similar, but legal object, such as a pocketknife.

See Also: Brady Material: Prosecution Does Not Have An Affirmative Duty To Obtain Exculpatory Evidence

Issue:  Whether the police possessed a sufficient level of knowledge (i.e. specific and articulable facts), consistent with People v. DeBour, that would constitute reasonable suspicion to believe an individual possessed a gravity knife as opposed to other similar knives, and is the police officer consequently authorized to conduct a stop and frisk.

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that where the Officer testified that he was unable to see a hinged top of a closed knife and observed the outline of a pocketknife and he was unable to say that he suspected or believed it to be a gravity knife and, in fact, testified that it looked like a pocket knife, that he did not have reasonable suspicion that the knife in Defendant’s pocket was unlawful in order to conduct a stop and frisk.

Before a Police Officer may stop and frisk a person in a public place, he must have reasonable suspicion that such person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. The Detaining Officer must have reason to believe that the object observed is indeed a gravity knife, based on his or her own experience and training and/or observable, identifiable characteristics of the knife. An individual may not be detained merely because he or she is seen in possession of an object that appears to be similar, but legal object, such as a pocketknife.

Facts: In Brannon, Defendant walked passed an undercover agent and the agent observed a hinged top of a knife in Defendant’s back pocket. The agent asked the Defendant to stop and upon questioning the Defendant admitted to having a knife on him. The agent than frisked Defendant and recovered the knife and arrested him. Defendant moved to suppress the knife as the fruit of an illegal search; that motion was denied. The Appellate Division affirmed and held that the Officer conducted a proper common-law inquiry in which Defendant admitted he had a knife. The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals relied on People v. De Bour 40 NY2d 210 1976, requiring that before a police officer may stop and frisk a person in a public place, he must have reasonable suspicion that such person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime.  Penal Law § 265.01(1) identifies gravity knives as per se weapons and criminalizes the mere possession of one.

             The Court of Appeals has held that a detaining Officer must have reason to believe that the object observed is indeed a gravity knife, based on his or her experience and training and/or observable, identifiable characteristics of the knife. An individual may not be detained merely because he or she is seen in possession of an object that appears to be a similar, but legal object, such as a pocketknife.

Reasonable suspicion is defined as the quantum of knowledge to induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious man under the circumstances to believe criminal activity is at hand.

A stop based on reasonable suspicion will be upheld so long as the intruding Officer can point to specific and articulable facts, which, along with any logical deductions, reasonably prompted the intrusion.

In this case, both Brannon and Fernandez argue that the Police officers did not have reasonable suspicion to believe that they were each carrying gravity knives. The Court of Appeals held that typically, once cannot tell if a knife is a gravity knife until the knife is opened. Reasonable suspicion, however, does not require absolute certainty that the knife the individual was carrying is a gravity knife.

The Court of Appeals granted both Brannon and Fernandez leave to appeal.

In Brannon, The Court of Appeals held that the Officer testified that he believed the knife was a pocketknife and was unable to testify that he suspected or believed it to be a gravity knife. The Officer’s testimony therefore does not, as a matter of law, support the conclusion that he had a reasonable suspicion that the knife in the Defendant’s pocket was unlawful. The Court of Appeals reversed.

In Fernandez, The Court of Appeals supported the Appellate Division’s conclusion that reasonable suspicion existed. The Officer’s attention was drawn to Defendant when he saw in plain view the “head” of a knife clipped to Defendant’s pants pocket. The Officer testified based on his experience that gravity knives are commonly carried in a person’s pocket attached with a clip with the “head” of the knife protruding. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.