67 N.Y.2d 338, People v. Burger

Citation:67 N.Y.2d 338, 502 N.Y.S.2d 702
Party Name:People v. Burger
Case Date:May 08, 1986
Court:New York Court of Appeals

Page 338

67 N.Y.2d 338

502 N.Y.S.2d 702

The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent,


Joseph BURGER, Appellant.

New York Court of Appeals

May 8, 1986.

Stephen R. Mahler, Kew Gardens, for appellant.

Elizabeth Holtzman, Dist. Atty. (Leonard Joblove and Barbara D. Underwood, Brooklyn, of counsel), for respondent.



We hold today that Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a(5)(a), which authorizes warrantless inspections of vehicle dismantling businesses, and New York City Charter § 436, which authorizes warrantless searches of junkyards and other businesses storing used, discarded or secondhand merchandise, violate the constitutional proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Defendant Joseph Burger is the owner of a junkyard in Brooklyn. Part of his business consists of dismantling automobiles and selling their parts. At about 12:00 noon on November 17, 1982, five plain-clothes New York City police officers assigned to the Auto Crimes Division entered defendant's junkyard, which was enclosed by a metal fence. According to the testimony of one of the officers, there were no [502 N.Y.S.2d 703] buildings in the yard and it contained numerous vehicles and parts of vehicles. Defendant was present at the time, and the officers inquired as to whether he was licensed to dismantle vehicles. Defendant replied that he was not and informed the officers in response to their questions that he did not have a "police book". 1 The police told defendant that they were going to perform a warrantless inspection pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a. 2

In the course of the inspection, the officers copied down the vehicle identification numbers (VINs) of several vehicles and parts of vehicles. The police also recorded the serial numbers from a wheelchair and a handicapped person's walker that were found alongside a dumpster. After checking the VINs and the serial numbers, the officers determined that two of the automobiles had been reported stolen, and that a wheelchair and a walker had been in one of them. The property was seized and defendant was charged with two counts of criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree (Penal Law § 165.45[1], [3] ), three counts of criminal possession of stolen property in the third degree (Penal Law § 165.40) and unregistered operation as a vehicle dismantler (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a[1] ). Following denial of defendant's motion to suppress the physical evidence and statements made by him to the arresting officer, defendant pleaded guilty to criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree.

At the hearing on defendant's motion to suppress, one of the officers, John Vega, testified that the function of the Auto Crimes Division was to make daily inspections of vehicle dismantlers' yards and that his unit typically conducted about 5 to 10 inspections a day. Officer Vega did not know how defendant's yard was chosen for inspection that day. He stated that when a police book is not available to check against a yard's inventory, it is normal procedure to record a random sample of VINs and to determine if any of the vehicles had been reported stolen.

The hearing court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the auto junkyard industry is "pervasively regulated" (see, United States v. Biswell, 406 U.S. 311, 92 S.Ct. 1593, 32 L.Ed.2d 87; Colonnade Catering Corp. v. United States, 397 U.S. 72, 90 S.Ct. 774, 25 L.Ed.2d 60) and that Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a is constitutional inasmuch as it is sufficiently limited in time, place and scope. Thereafter, reargument of the motion was granted in light of an Appellate Division decision in People v. Pace, 101 A.D.2d 336, 475 N.Y.S.2d 443, affd. (65 N.Y.2d 684, 491 N.Y.S.2d 618, 481 N.E.2d 250) that implied in a footnote that section 415-a requires the police to obtain a search warrant in instances where the junkyard owner cannot produce a police book (101 A.D.2d at p. 339, n. 1, 475 N.Y.S.2d 443). Upon reargument, the court adhered to its previous determination, holding that the statute's language authorizes the warrantless inspection of vehicles and parts that are the subject of its record-keeping requirements and that, unlike the situation in Pace, the search in this case was undertaken pursuant to an administrative [502 N.Y.S.2d 704] scheme and not simply as a quest for evidence prompted by police suspicion of criminal activity.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that "[i]n the instant case, the police were seeking to administer the regulatory schemes set forth in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a and New York City Charter § 436.[ 3 The constitutionality of these statutory provisions has recently been upheld by this court in People v. Cusumano, 108 A.D.2d 752, 484 N.Y.S.2d 909." (112 A.D.2d 1046, 493 N.Y.S.2d 34.)

On this appeal, defendant argues that Vehicle and Traffic Law § 415-a and New York City Charter § 436 are facially unconstitutional in that, regardless of the auto junkyard business' status as a closely regulated industry, they authorize warrantless searches that are not designed to further any administrative objective. The People respond that the statutes further the substantial State interest in controlling automobile theft by establishing an administrative scheme requiring automobile dismantlers to be licensed and registered and to maintain detailed records of their inventory showing proof of ownership. The People further argue that by permitting unannounced warrantless searches the statutes allow the police to carry out the State's objective while adequately protecting a junkyard owner's diminished privacy interest.


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