People v. Benjamin Jenkins
AD2 order dated November 21, 2012, reversing hearing court grant of motion to suppress physical evidence. Decision below: 100 AD3d 924, 954 NYS2d 183. Smith, J., granted leave July 10, 2013.
ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless search for a gun inside the apartment. The police had arrested defendant inside the apartment after hearing gunshots on the roof and in the stairwell of the apartment building, and then seeing defendant, holding a gun, run into the apartment with a second man. (Assigned counsel: Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society, Criminal Appeal Bureau, 199 Water Street, NYC 10038.)
Issue: When police are in an apartment on the basis of exigent circumstances, can they search closed containers?
Answer: No, at least in this circumstance (says the unanimous Court).
Facts: Police hear gunshots and see muzzle flashes from the roof of an apartment building and then hear another gunshot as the go up the stairs. On the eighth floor, the police see defendant with a gun. Defendant and other guy flee into an apartment. The police batter the door down. The two women in the apartment, including a woman in a wheelchair, deny that anyone had come into the apartment, but a search of the apartment reveals defendant and the other guy hiding under beds. The police cannot find the gun, until they open a silver box in the adjourning bedroom.
Finding: The exigency that warranted entry into the apartment had abated by the time the defendant was handcuffed and the women were under observation in the livingroom. Given the burden on the prosecution to justify the warrantless search and that “the scope of the conduct thus sanctioned [by the exigency] is strictly limited by the necessities of the circumstances in which it arises,” the Court suppressed the gun. Interestingly, the Court did so despite the Appellate Division’s upholding of the search (a mixed question?) finding “[t]here [was] no record support for the Appellate Division’s conclusion that exigent circumstances justified the search of the closed box.”
CAL Observes: The case stands for the very important proposition that the exigency can terminate once the police control the situation. However, it’s not hard to imagine that this case might have turned out differently if the two people in the apartment were perceived by the Court to be more threatening. Thus, the case highlights the importance of crafting compelling and detailed narratives when presenting such claims.