Squadrito v. Griebsch

Decision Date11 July 1956
Citation136 N.E.2d 504,1 N.Y.2d 471,154 N.Y.S.2d 37
Parties, 136 N.E.2d 504 Raymond Joseph SQUADRITO, Respondent, v. Ernest H. GRIEBSCH, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Jacob K. Javits, Atty. Gen. (Joseph H. Murphy, Syracuse, and James O. Moore, Jr., Albany, of counsel), for appellant.

P. Sidney Hand, Syracuse, for respondent.

FULD, Judge.

On an October afternoon in the year 1953, defendant, a state trooper, and a fellow officer, both in uniform and in a car prominently marked 'State Police,' were engaged in patrolling Route 11 in up-state New York. At about two o'clock, they observed plaintiff's automobile proceeding at a high speed, 'clocked' it at from 70 to 75 miles an hour on a portion of the highway having a 50-mile speed limit and, after following for two miles, stopped the vehicle and relieved plaintiff of his driver's license and registration. Defendant, not answering plaintiff's query, 'What did I do wrong?', directed plaintiff, 'Just follow me to the judge'. Plaintiff did so and, in the presence of the justice of the peace, to whose house they drove, defendant prepared and filed an information charging plaintiff with speeding in violation of section 56, subdivision 3, of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, Consol.Laws, c. 71. 1 He pleaded not guilty to the information, the case was postponed and a week later he was tried. Both defendant and the other trooper testified at the trial that plaintiff had been driving upwards of 70 miles an hour and plaintiff himself admitted that he had exceeded the speed limit. He was adjudged guilty and fined $50.

This action for false arrest, in which plaintiff sought damages of $10,000, followed. After a fairly brief trial, the judge, concluding that the defendant was guilty of an illegal arrest because he had failed to inform plaintiff of the cause of the arrest, instructed the jurors that they were to concern themselves solely with the matter of damages. The jury returned a verdict of $600, and the Appellate Division, by a three to two vote, affirmed the resulting judgment.

Defendant's conduct may have been irritating, even assuming that plaintiff did not know that he was speeding at upwards of 70 miles an hour, but his silence, whether ascribable to officiousness or discourtesy or lack of attention, does not justify a charge of false arrest.

Chapter IV of title III, in part IV of the Code of Criminal Procedure, deals with 'Arrest by an Officer, Without a Warrant'. Section 177, setting forth the cases in which such an arrest is permitted, reads as follows:

'A peace officer may, without a warrant, arrest a person,

'1. For a crime, committed or attempted in his presence;

'2. When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence;

'3. When a felony has in fact been committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person to be arrested to have committed it'. (Emphasis supplied.)

And section 180, complementing section 177, provides that,

'When arresting a person without a warrant the officer must inform him of the authority of the officer and the cause of the arrest, except when the person arrested is in the actual commission of a crime, or is pursued immediately after an escape.' (Emphasis supplied.)

This exception, highly logical, was inserted for a very good reason. When a person is apprehended 'in the actual commission' of a crime, there is, of course, no need to acquaint him with the cause of his arrest. The reasonable and necessary assumption, and the assumption on the basis of which the Legislature undoubtedly acted, is that the offender caught in the act is fully aware of what he is doing and why he is being taken into custody.

Thus, the Legislature has declared, in language quite plain, that a peace officer may arrest without a warrant and without the necessity of stating the cause of the arrest, if the offender was apprehended in the actual commission of a crime. Plaintiff attempts to avoid the force of this language by urging that the act for which he was arrested is not a 'crime' within the meaning of these statutory provisions. Two contentions are advanced: first, that the word 'crime' in section 180 denotes only a felony and no lower category of crime, because the heading of that section refers to the commission of a 'felony' and, second, that, in any event, speeding is denominated a 'traffic infraction' rather than a crime by the Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 2, subd. 29. Neither contention can stand analysis.

The heading to section 180, it is true, mentions only a 'felony'; it reads, 'Must state his authority, and cause of arrest, except where party is committing felony or is pursued after escape'. The text of the statute, however, broadly and unqualifiedly provides that the exception applies 'when the person arrested is in the actual commission of a crime, or is pursued immediately after an escape.'

Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, be it legislative oversight or scrivener's error, there can be no doubt that the text of the statute must take precedence over its title. While a title or heading may help clarify or point the meaning of an imprecise or dubious provision, it may not alter or limit the effect of unambiguous language in the body of the statute itself. See People v. O'Brien, 111 N.Y. 1, 59-60, 18 N.E. 692, 707, 708, 2 L.R.A. 255; Bell v. Mayor of City of New York, 105 N.Y. 139, 144, 11 N.E. 495, 497; Matter of New York & Brooklyn Bridge, 72 N.Y. 527, 532; People v. Molyneux, 40 N.Y. 113, 119, 122; People v. McCann, 16 N.Y. 58; People v. O'Neil, 280 App.Div. 145, 146, 112 N.Y.S.2d 756. 'The character of a statute', we have written, 'is to be determined by its provisions, and not by its title'. People v. O'Brien, supra, 111 N.Y. 1, 59, 18 N.E. 692, 708, 2 L.R.A. 255.

There is no ambiguity in the Legislature's use of the word 'crime' in the text of section 180. The section is part of a comprehensive statutory scheme governing arrests, in which the distinction between felonies and crimes, in general, plays an important part and is carefully preserved throughout. See e. g., Code Crim.Proc., §§ 158, 159, 170, 177, 179, 183. Section 177, for example, authorizes a peace officer to arrest without a warrant for any crime, if it is committed in his presence, subd., but only for a felony, if not committed in his presence, budbs. 2, 3. And in section 180, dispensing with the need for stating the cause of the arrest in the former case, the conclusion is inescapable that the word 'crime' was again used deliberately and advisedly to denote all types of crime rather then felonies alone. Indeed, if section 180 were to be read, as urged, to cover only felonies, the result, most anomalously, would be that a private citizen's power of arrest, as defined by sections 183 [1 N.Y.2d 476] and 184 of the Code, would be greater than that of a peace officer. The latter provisions are in language and substance similar to sections 177 and 180 and, in dealing with the need to state the cause of the arrest, section 184, like section 180, excepts an arrest made 'in the actual commission of the crime.' The heading of section 184, however, unlike that of section 180, do not contain the word 'felony' to distract from its text, 2 and, accordingly, no one would suggest that the word 'crime' in that section means anything other, or less, than 'crime.' The Legislature could not conceivably have intended that the same word cover only felonies in section 180, and that the peace officer's authority should be more narrowly circumscribed than that of a private citizen.

The other argument advanced is that the Code provisions are inapplicable, and authority for the arrest lacking, merely because speeding is labeled a 'traffic infraction' rather than a 'crime', Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 2, subd. 29. This contention, as already noted, is equally unavailing.

We may not simply say that a 'traffic infraction' is not a 'crime,' and that that is the end of the matter. We must look to the statute subdivision 29 of section 2 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law which so declares and seek the object or purpose underlying that legislative pronouncement. It was, as the governor observed when he approved the bill enacting the provision into law, to 'establish a new type of crime,' with the sigma of criminality removed. 1934 Public Papers of Governor Herbert H. Lehman, p. 345. Thus, while certain of the consequences which attach to conviction of a crime were eliminated, 3 the Legislature made it clear that such 'infractions' were to be 'deemed misdemeanors' for other purposes, Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 2, subd. 29; this is the concluding sentence of subdivision 29:

'Courts and judicial officers heretofore exercising jurisdiction over such acts and violations (of the traffic laws) as misdemeanors or otherwise shall continue to exercise jurisdiction over traffic infractions as herein defind, and for such purpose such acts and violations shall be deemed misdemeanors and all provisions of law relating to misdemeanors * * * except as herein otherwise expressly provided shall apply to traffic infactions, except however, that no jury trial shall be allowed for traffic infractions.' (Emphasis supplied.)

This constituted a legislative declaration that traffic infractions were to be treated as misdemeanors as far as the procedure for their prosecution was concerned. To suggest that such infractions were to be treated otherwise in the necessary steps preceding trial, that is, in connection with an arrest, would be highly unreasonable. It would be, in the words of County Court Judge Schmidt (as he then was), 'inconsistent, fraught with practical difficulties, and would defeat the apparent purpose of the Legislature in providing an orderly and consistent procedure for punishment of violators of the Vehicle and Traffic Law and duly adopted 'speeding ordinances' of municipalities.' People v. Space, 182 Misc. 783, 785, 51 N.Y.S.2d 509, 510.

In point of fact,...

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