People v. Nathaniel Mabry (SSM)


Issue: Whether the warrantless search of Mabry’s backpack was valid incident to arrest.

Factual Background: The police received reports of a burglary in process in Queens, followed by a report that the alleged perpetrator was leaving the building on a bike, wearing a black hat, and carrying a backpack. Five blocks away from the scene, responding officers saw Mabry and thought he met the description. They turned on their lights and sirens, exited their car, and began chasing him. Mabry attempted to flee, but his bike “got wedged” between a patrol car and a parked car, and he fell off. The complainant soon arrived and yelled, “That’s him!” After arresting Mabry, the police searched his backpack and found the complainant’s personal effects.

The Queens County Supreme Court denied Mabry’s suppression motion on the ground that the bag search was valid incident to arrest. On appeal, the Second Department agreed, upholding the search under People v. Gokey, 60 N.Y.2d 309, 312 (1983), because it was conducted close in time to the arrest (two minutes afterward) and under exigent circumstances. In the court’s view, Mabry’s backpack was “on the street” and was, therefore, still accessible at the time of his arrest. Further, the circumstances—a violent crime, a police chase, a public street—supported a “reasonable belief” that searching the backpack was necessary to ensure the safety of the offices and the public.

Held: On SSM, in a memorandum opinion, the Court reversed the Second Department, holding that the record did not demonstrate where the bag was in relation to Mabry, let alone that it was in his “grabbable area” immediately prior to the search. However, because the Supreme Court did not reach the prosecution’s alternate justification for the search—inevitable discovery--the Court remitted the matter to Supreme Court for further proceedings.

CAL Observes: Mabry adds to an ever-growing list of Court of Appeals decisions issued in memorandum, on SSM, despite the presence of important substantive issues warranting full-fledged litigation and guidance from the Court. Notably, the sole case the Second Department cited in deeming the search of Mabry’s bag lawful—People v. Harris, 174 A.D.3d 185, 188 (1st Dep’t 2019)—was also appealed and decided on SSM. In its memorandum opinion in Harris, the Court shed no light on the validity of the underlying search incident to arrest, instead remitting the case so that the Supreme Court could properly apply Gokey. This remittance ignored Justice Renwick’s lengthy dissent applying Gokey and detailing the record-based facts which warranted suppression and dismissal on appeal.  While the outcome here is positive for our clients, the case background demonstrates the confusion and wasted resources that the Court’s current approach engenders.