People v. Ingle

Decision Date01 April 1975
Citation369 N.Y.S.2d 67,36 N.Y.2d 413
Parties, 330 N.E.2d 39 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Peter Arthur INGLE, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Charles F. Crimi, Rochester, for appellant.

Walter J. Ward, Dist. Atty., for respondent.

BREITEL, Chief Judge.

Defendant was convicted in County Court, after a guilty plea, of attempted criminal possession of a dangerous drug in the fourth degree (Penal Law, McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 40, § 220.15, repealed by L.1973, ch. 276, § 18). He received five years' probation. The Appellate Division affirmed and defendant appeals.

The issue is whether a police officer may stop an automobile, arbitrarily chosen from the stream of traffic on a public highway only because of the unusual but irrelevant appearance of the vehicle, solely to examine the motorist's license and registration, or to inspect the vehicle for possible equipment violations.

There should be a reversal. A single automobile traveling on a public highway may be stopped for a 'routine traffic check' when a police officer reasonably suspects a violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Absent reasonable suspicion of a vehicle violation, a 'routine traffic check' to determine whether or not a vehicle is being operated in compliance with the Vehicle and Traffic Law is permissible only when conducted according to nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory, uniform procedures for detecting violations. It should be emphasized that, in the context of a motor vehicle inspection 'stop', the degree of suspicion required to justify the stop is minimal. Nothing like probable cause as that term is used in the criminal law is required.

On August 25, 1972, defendant was operating his 1949 Ford on Route 96A in Seneca County. The automobile, despite its vintage, was in apparent excellent condition, and had no external signs of defective equipment. Defendant was not speeding, nor was he violating any other traffic law.

Although he had no information concerning defendant or his vehicle, a State Trooper decided to make what he later described as a 'routine traffic check' of the Ford. The trooper switched on his red signal lights and flasher and caused defendant to pull over to the side of the road.

Defendant alighted, leaving the driver's side door open, and, upon the trooper's request, produced his operator's license and vehicle registration. The trooper walked around the front of the Ford to the passenger side, inspecting for possible equipment violations. When he returned to the driver's side, the trooper saw an unused bronze wire screen, about the size of a nickel coin, lying on the rug between the front seat and the door frame. He asked defendant if he could examine the screen, and, upon receiving defendant's consent, reached into the automobile to pick it up. As he did so, he detected the aroma of marijuana.

The trooper then noticed an open pouch on the front seat and asked defendant if he could examine it. Defendant assented. Inside the pouch, he found a smoker's pipe, the burnt end of a marijuana cigarette, and a small quantity of loose marijuana. Defendant was arrested and taken to the trooper substation, where he later made admissions.

Defendant was subsequently indicted for criminal possession of a dangerous drug in the third degree, and initially pleaded not guilty. After a hearing, defendant's motion to suppress the real evidence and the admissions was denied. The suppression court apparently assumed that the trooper was unqualifiedly entitled to stop defendant's automobile. Upon finding probable cause to search the vehicle, as distinguished from the mere stop, it denied suppression. Defendant then pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted criminal possession of a dangerous drug in the fourth degree.

The problem raised by the present appeal embraces two distinct aspects or practices by the police in the stopping of moving automobiles for legitimate police purposes under the Vehicle and Traffic Law. The one, for which there must be some valid reason, however slight, is the occasion for singling out a particular automobile and its operator for a stop and an inspection to determine compliance with the Vehicle and Traffic Law. The other is to conduct a routine check of automobiles by some nonarbitrary, systematic procedure to verify compliance with the law. This may be done randomly, but even then by some system or uniform procedure, and not gratuitously or by individually discriminatory selection. It may also be done by uniform inspection of all vehicles at a roadblock or checkpoint. It is assumed that any other kind of stopping without cause or reason or by arbitrary caprice or curiosity is an impermissible intrusion on the freedom of movement. The difficulty is the separation of the permissible from the impermissible without unduly frustrating legitimate police purposes or encroaching unduly on the rights of individuals even as motorists.

Subdivision 4 of section 401 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 71 requires any motorist to produce, upon demand of a police officer, the automobile registration certificate, and all information required concerning his license to operate (see, also Vehicle and Traffic, Law, § 507, subd. 2, which makes failure to exhibit a valid operator's license to a policeman presumptive evidence that the motorist is not duly licensed).

By necessary implication, in many of the cases the statute has been read to authorize stops for 'routine traffic checks'. In fact, ample basis for reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, or even probable cause to arrest, could have been found to justify the stop without reliance upon the statute (see People v. Denti, 44 A.D.2d 44, 45--46, 353 N.Y.S.2d 10, 13 (police officers' suspicions aroused by defendant's automobile cruising erratically in 'circles' in high-crime area); People v. Merola, 30 A.D.2d 963, 964, 294 N.Y.S.2d 301, 308 (police officers, responding to 'burglary in progress' call, observed man running toward vehicle which had motor running; vehicle pulled away to leave and was stopped); People v. Hoffman, 24 A.D.2d 497, 498, 261 N.Y.S.2d 651, 653 (defendant's activities in the operation of an automobile at 4 o'clock in the morning termed 'suspicious'); but cf. People v. Baer, 37 A.D.2d 150, 152, 322 N.Y.S.2d 534, 536 and People v. Dozier, 52 Misc.2d 631, 632, 276 N.Y.S.2d 145, 147 (involving stops arguably treatable as not arbitrary but assuming that a traffic stop needs no basis whatsoever); see, also, People v. Scianno, 20 A.D.2d 919, 920, 249 N.Y.S.2d 456, 458, which evidently assumed an absolute right to stop motor vehicles).

Section 390 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law is more pertinent to the inquiry. The statute provides that: 'The superintendent of state police shall cause inspection to be made of the motor vehicles and motorcycles operating on the public highways to detect inadequacy of equipment, overloading and other violations of the law governing the use of the public highways by motor vehicles and motorcycles.'

True, the statute has been read as authorizing stops for 'routine traffic checks' without further elaboration (see People v. Rowell, 27 N.Y.2d 691, 314 N.Y.S.2d 10; People v. Fidler, 280 App.Div. 698, 700--703, 117 N.Y.S.2d 313, 315--317). Significantly, neither Rowell nor Fidler need have relied upon the statute to uphold the stops. In the Rowell case, defendant conceded a limited right of the police to stop. In the Fidler case, the police had ample reason to suspect violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Five trucks heavily loaded with crushed stone were observed proceeding along the highway. The same trucks had been found overweight just two weeks before. The trucks were stopped and the operators were ordered to drive onto a portable scale to check the weight (280 App.Div. at p. 700, 117 N.Y.S.2d at p. 315). Despite the court's sweeping language upholding under the statute, without further justification, inspection stops of vehicles using the highway, this was no stop for a 'routine traffic check'.

Cases permitting motor vehicle inspection stops, in the absence of probable cause or suspicion, have relied principally upon the right of the police to inspect motor vehicles as incident to the privilege to use the public highway (see People v. Fidler, 280 App.Div. 698, 700, 117 N.Y.S.2d 313, 315, Supra; cf. People v. Battle, 12 N.Y.2d 866, 237 N.Y.S.2d 341, 187 N.E.2d 793). That right of inspection is not in dispute; it is the precondition to the exercise of that right which is in issue. Labeling the use of the public highway as a 'privilege' is not dispositive of whether any stop, however arbitrary, is permissible.

Whatever the validity of Fidler in its day, the concept that constitutional rights turn upon whether a governmental benefit is characterized as a 'right' or as a 'privilege' has been rejected (Graham v. Richardson,403 U.S. 365, 374, 91 S.Ct. 1848, 1853, 29 L.Ed.2d 534; see Bell v. Burson,402 U.S. 535, 539, 91 S.Ct. 1586, 1589, 29 L.Ed.2d 90; Goldberg v. Kelly,397 U.S. 254, 262, 90 S.Ct. 1011, 1017, 25 L.Ed.2d 28 Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 627, 89 S.Ct. 1322, 1327, 22 L.Ed.2d 600, n. 6; Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 404, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 1794, 10 L.Ed.2d 965; People v. Samuel, 29 N.Y.2d 252, 258, 327 N.Y.S.2d 321, 324--325, 277 N.E.2d 381, 383; People ex rel. Menechino v. Warden, 27 N.Y.2d 376, 384, 318 N.Y.S.2d 449, 455, 267 N.E.2d 238, 243, n. 6). Hence, section 390 may not be read to authorize a stop by the shibboleth of a 'routine traffic check', if such a stop is gratuitous, arbitrary, and without justification or excuse to support even that limited intrusion on movement on the highways.

In determining the constitutional scope of a stop for a 'routine traffic check', the threshold inquiry is whether even such a stop is a seizure within the meaning of constitutional limitations. By arguable analogy, the rationale of Terry v....

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