People v. Oscar Sanders
AD2 order dated July 23, 2014, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 119 AD3d 878, 991 NYS2d 66. Lippman, Ch.J., granted leave December 30, 2014. Argued January 5, 2016.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Whether the police properly seized, without a warrant, defendant’s clothes, which were lying on the floor of his hospital room in a clear plastic bag, under the theory there was probable cause to believe that the defendant was a victim. (2) Defendant’s absence from the Sandoval hearing. (Assigned counsel: Shanda Sibley & Lynn W.L. Fahey, Appellate Advocates, 111 John St., 9th Floor, NYC 10038.)
Background Facts: When the defendant “walked in” to the hospital seeking treatment for a gunshot wound, the hospital reported the shooting to the police. The defendant, who was wearing a hospital gown at the time of the interview, informed the responding officer that he “was shot in [a nearby] park.” After speaking with defendant for over an hour, the officer was “directed to [the] clothing defendant ‘wore when he came to [the] hospital,” which were maintained in a clear plastic bag sitting on the floor of the trauma room outside of defendant’s presence. The officer seized, searched, and vouchered the clothes in the bag. Based in part on the officer’s analysis of the condition of the items in the bag, the authorities believed that defendant had accidentally shot himself with a gun he illegally carried in his waistband. At a suppression hearing, the defense argued that the officer illegally seized the clothes and requested suppression. The prosecution opposed, arguing that the plain view doctrine permitted the seizure. The court denied suppression and held that because the clothing in the clear bag was potential evidence of a crime, the Fourth Amendment was not violated when the clothes were recovered with the goal of examining them “to see if [they] had relevance to the investigation of a crime of someone being shot.” After a jury trial, defendant was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the second (outside of home or place of business) and third degrees.
Issue before the Court: Whether the defendant’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated when police took defendant’s clothing, which had been placed in a clear hospital bag, without either a warrant or his consent.
Held: The seizure was unlawful where there was no evidence that the officer who seized the clothes had reason to believe that the shooting had affected defendant’s clothes nor probable cause to believe that the clothes were the instrumentality of a crime.
A unanimous Court reminds us of the limitations of the plain view exception. More specifically, this case serves as an important reminder to defense attorneys to consider the incriminating nature of an item on its face as well as the officer’s scope of knowledge at the time of a seizure when seeking suppression. Here, while the officer at the time of the search may have known defendant was shot while wearing the clothes contained in the clear plastic bag, the Court notes that this is not enough to justify a warrantless seizure under the plain view doctrine. Specifically, the Court highlights the gaps in the officer’s knowledge as to whether there were entry and exit wounds in the clothing or if the clothing was affected at all.