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Vehicle Stops in New York

Reasonable cause is defined in § 1194(3)(c) of the New York Traffic law, which provides that reasonable cause shall be determined by viewing the totality of circumstances surrounding the incident which, when taken together, indicates that the operator was driving in violation of § 1192. Such circumstances may include, but are not limited to:

(1) evidence that the operator was operating a motor vehicle in violation of any provision of this article or any other moving violation at the time of the incident;

(2) there are visible indications of alcohol or drug consumption or impairment by the operator; (3) the existence of an open container containing an alcoholic beverage in or around the vehicle driven by the operator;

(4) any other evidence surrounding the circumstances of the incident which indicates that the operator has been operating a motor vehicle while impaired by the consumption of alcohol or drugs or intoxicated at the time of the incident.

Probable cause for a driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrest exists if the arresting officer can demonstrate reasonable grounds to believe the defendant had been operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Probable cause or reasonable suspicion must be based on objective facts. In determining whether police officer’s stop of a vehicle is supported by probable cause, neither the primary motivation of the officer nor a determination of what a reasonable traffic officer would have done under the circumstances is relevant.

In particular, “reasonable suspicion” has been aptly defined as “the quantum of knowledge sufficient to induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious man under the circumstances to believe that criminal activity is at hand.” The requisite knowledge must be more than subjective; it should have at least some demonstrable roots. Mere “hunch” or “gut reaction” will not do.

The stopping of an automobile by the police, like the stopping of a person on the street, is a seizure within the meaning of constitutional limitations of the Fourth Amendment. The brief, suspicion less stop of an automobile, while far less intrusive than a traditional arrest, nonetheless qualifies as a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. A stop of a motor vehicle on a public highway by police officers is justified only when conducted pursuant to non-arbitrary, nondiscriminatory, uniform highway traffic procedures, or when the stop conforms to the aforementioned probably cause standard based on observations of the defendant by the officer such that he would reasonable suspect violation of the law.

The New York State Court of Appeals held that although an “arbitrary stop” of an automobile for a purportedly routine traffic check is impermissible, a routine traffic stop is permissible when there is a “factual basis” to support such action: All that is required is that the stop not be the product of mere whim, caprice or idle curiosity. It is enough if the stop is based upon specific and articulable facts which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, warrant the intrusion.

Illegal vehicle stops occur when an officer of the peace has not established a probable cause for stopping the vehicle and may be suppressed during trial. Factors which may be considered, on defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained following vehicle stop, in determining officer’s primary motivation for stop include: whether officer checked on vehicle’s registration or issued summons to driver; whether officer inquired into alleged traffic violation beyond asking for driver’s license and registration; whether officer’s assignment included issuance of traffic summonses; whether officer followed vehicle before observing traffic violation; whether officer followed vehicle for significant distance before stop or detained defendant for extended period after stop; and whether officer had determined to stop and arrest defendant prior to stop.


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