People v. Robinson

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation767 N.E.2d 638,741 N.Y.S.2d 147,97 N.Y.2d 341
Decision Date18 December 2001

Abigail Everett, New York City, and Robert S. Dean for appellant in the first above-entitled action.

Robert T. Johnson, District Attorney of Bronx County, Bronx (Cheryl D. Harris, Joseph N. Ferdenzi and Stuart P. Levy of counsel), for respondent in the first above-entitled action.

John C. Tunney, District Attorney of Steuben County, Mark Dwyer, New York City, and Susan Gliner for New York State District Attorneys Association, amicus curiae in the first above-entitled action. Howard R. Relin, District Attorney of Monroe County, Rochester (Stephen K. Lindley of counsel), for appellant in the second above-entitled action.

Thomas A. Corletta, Rochester, for respondent in the second above-entitled action. Andrew C. Fine, New York City, and Heidi Bota for appellant in the third above-entitled action.

Robert M. Morgenthau, District Attorney of New York County, New York City (Eleanor J. Ostrow and Hilary Hassler of counsel), for respondent in the third above-entitled action.

Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, New York City (Roslyn Powell, Kirsten D. Levingston and E. Joshua Rosenkranz of counsel), for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, amicus curiae in the third above-entitled action.

Harrington & Mahoney, Buffalo (Mark J. Mahoney of

counsel), for New York State Defenders Association, amicus curiae in the first, second and third above-entitled actions.

Judges WESLEY, ROSENBLATT and GRAFFEO concur with Judge SMITH; Judge LEVINE dissents and votes to reverse and remit to Supreme Court in a separate opinion in which Chief Judge KAYE and Judge CIPARICK concur.



The issue here is whether a police officer who has probable cause to believe a driver has committed a traffic infraction violates article I, § 12 of the New York State Constitution when the officer, whose primary motivation is to conduct another investigation, stops the vehicle. We conclude that there is no violation, and we adopt Whren v United States (517 US 806) as a matter of state law.


People v Robinson

On November 22, 1993, New York City police officers in the Street Crime Unit, Mobile Taxi Homicide Task Force were on night patrol in a marked police car in the Bronx. Their main assignment was to follow taxicabs to make sure that no robberies occurred. After observing a car speed through a red light, the police activated their high intensity lights and pulled over what they suspected was a livery cab. After stopping the cab, one officer observed a passenger, the defendant, look back several times. The officers testified that they had no intention of giving the driver a summons but wanted to talk to him about safety tips. The officers approached the vehicle with their flashlights turned on and their guns holstered. One of the officers shined his flashlight into the back of the vehicle, where defendant was seated, and noticed that defendant was wearing a bulletproof vest. After the officer ordered defendant out of the taxicab, he observed a gun on the floor where defendant had been seated. Defendant was arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon and unlawfully wearing a bulletproof vest. Defendant moved to suppress the vest and gun, arguing that the officers used a traffic infraction as a pretext to search the occupant of the taxicab. The court denied the motion, and defendant was convicted of both charges. He was sentenced as a persistent violent felony offender to eight years to life on the weapons charge and 1½ to 3 years on the other charge.

In affirming, the Appellate Division applied the Whren rationale (271 AD2d 17 [2000]). We affirm the unanimous order of the Appellate Division.

People v Reynolds

On March 6, 1999, shortly after midnight, a police officer, on routine motor patrol in the City of Rochester, saw a man he knew to be a prostitute enter defendant's truck. The officer followed the truck and ran a computer check on the license plate. Upon learning that the vehicle's registration had expired two months earlier, the officer stopped the vehicle.

The resulting investigation did not lead to any charges involving prostitution. Nevertheless, because the driver's eyes were bloodshot, his speech slurred and there was a strong odor of alcohol, police performed various field sobriety tests, with defendant failing most. Defendant was placed under arrest for driving while intoxicated. At the police station, tests indicated that defendant's blood alcohol level was .20%, double the legal limit of .10% (see, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1192 [2]).

Defendant was charged with driving while intoxicated, an unclassified misdemeanor, and operating an unregistered motor vehicle, a traffic infraction. Defendant's motion to suppress was granted by the Rochester City Court which dismissed all charges. County Court affirmed the dismissal, holding that the traffic violation was merely a pretext and the officer's primary motivation was to investigate prostitution. We reverse.

People v Glenn

On November 7, 1997, plainclothes police officers were on street crime patrol in an unmarked car in Manhattan. They observed a livery cab make a right hand turn without signaling. An officer noticed someone sitting in the back seat lean forward. The police stopped the vehicle to investigate whether or not a robbery was in progress. A police officer subsequently found cocaine on the rear seat and, after he arrested defendant, found additional drugs on his person. Defendant was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree and criminally using drug paraphernalia in the second degree. He contended that the drugs should be suppressed, asserting that the traffic infraction was a pretext to investigate a robbery. After his motion to suppress was denied, he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced, as a second felony offender, to 4½ to 9 years in prison. Relying on Whren, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction (279 AD2d 422 [2001]). We affirm the order of the Appellate Division.


The Supreme Court, in Whren v United States (517 US 806 [1996]), unanimously held that where a police officer has probable cause to detain a person temporarily for a traffic violation, that seizure does not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution even though the underlying reason for the stop might have been to investigate some other matter.

In Whren, officers patrolling a known drug area of the District of Columbia became suspicious when several young persons seated in a truck with temporary license plates remained at a stop sign for an unusual period of time, and the driver was looking down into the lap of the passenger seated on his right. After the car made a right turn without signaling, the police stopped it, assertedly to warn the driver of traffic violations, and saw two plastic bags of what appeared to be crack cocaine in Whren's hands.

After arresting the occupants, the police found several quantities of drugs in the car. The petitioners were charged with violating federal drug laws. The petitioners moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the stop was not based upon probable cause or even reasonable suspicion that they were engaged in illegal drug activity and that the police officer's assertion that he approached the car in order to give a warning was pretextual. The District Court denied suppression, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed (53 F3d 371 [1995]).

The Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment had not been violated because "[a]s a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred" (Whren, supra, 517 US, at 810). The stop of the truck was based upon probable cause that the petitioners had violated provisions of the District of Columbia traffic code. The Court rejected any effort to tie the legality of the officers' conduct to their primary motivation or purpose in making the stop, deeming irrelevant whether a reasonable traffic police officer would have made the stop. According to the Court, "Subjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis" (id., at 813). Thus, the "Fourth Amendment's concern with `reasonableness' allows certain actions to be taken in certain circumstances, whatever the subjective intent" (id., at 814).

More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the objective standard approved by Whren or cited it with approval (see, Appendix).1


In each of the cases before us, defendant argues that the stop was pretextual and in violation of New York State Constitution, article I, § 12. By arguing that the stops were pretextual, defendants claim that although probable cause existed warranting a stop of the vehicle for a valid traffic infraction, the officer's primary motivation was to conduct some other investigation.

We hold that where a police officer has probable cause to believe that the driver of an automobile has committed a traffic violation, a stop does not violate article I, § 12 of the New York State Constitution. In making that determination of 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. We have observed that because the search and seizure language of the Fourth Amendment and of article I, § 12 is identical, they generally...

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