People v. Robert HInshaw


Issue: Under the Fourth Amendment what level of suspicion does a police officer need to stop a car under New York law?

Held: The police must possess either probable cause to believe a traffic infraction has been committed or reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is about to be committed.

Factual Background: Wilson majority: a State trooper “stopped a vehicle on a street in Buffalo.  The Trooper had observed no traffic violations and saw that the inspection sticker was valid, both of the occupants were wearing their seat belts, and ‘everything looked good.’ Nevertheless, the Trooper ran a check of the car based on the front license plate.”  The inquiry produced a response that the car had been impounded but advised that no further action should be taken based on this response.  The inevitable smell of marijuana ensued, followed by the recovery of a gun.  After the denial of suppression, Hinshaw plead guilty.  The Appellate Division held that the impoundment report and the Trooper’s explanation of its import provided reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed.

Alternative Facts: Garcia dissent: “Following a traffic stop, several grams of marijuana and a loaded gun were discovered in defendant’s vehicle.”

Majority analysis:   Pursuant to People v. Robinson, 97 N.Y.2d 341 (2001) traffic stops are only lawful when based on probable cause that a driver committed a traffic violation or reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or about to commit a crime, or when conducted pursuant to nondiscriminatory, uniform highway procedures.  These standards are based purely on New York law and have been applied by all four Appellate Divisions.  Federal standards, holding that traffic stops can be based on reasonable suspicion that a traffic infraction has been committed, are irrelevant to the analysis.  To the extent that People v. Ingle, 36 N.Y.2d 413 (1975), suggested that stops could be based on less than probable cause that a traffic infraction had been committed, that suggestion was mere dicta and should not be followed.

Stein concurrence: the issue of whether probable cause that a traffic infraction has been committed is required to support a traffic stop is not before us as the suppression court and Appellate Division analyzed the issue solely under the reasonable suspicion standard.  The lower courts found that the impound notice provided the Trooper with reasonable suspicion to believe a crime had been committed.  As the impound notice did not provide reasonable suspicion, reversal was required.

Garcia in dissent was extremely upset-- accusing the majority of announcing a sea change, inflicting damage on New York law and the historic process for constitutional decision making, He criticized the majority’s two-tiered analysis as being inconsistent with federal law, serving no identifiable purpose, and impractical.  According to Garcia, experienced officers should be able to stop cars based on reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has been committed and it was unlikely the Robinson Court departed from the federal standards without expressly stating their intention of doing so.

CAL observes: The Court of Appeals spent a lot of time and ink on traffic stops this year, displaying an unusual amount of rancor in the process.  In Hinshaw, the majority and dissent disagreed about everything --the factual record, the state of the law, and the applicable standards.  The majority opinion was a bright spot for the defense, putting the Court’s bad decision in Robinson (permitting pretextual stops for traffic infractions) to some good use by adopting the probable cause standard announced there to restrict car stops.   As with all Fourth Amendment issues, the central dispute is the amount of discretion to give the police.  Garcia would give them a goodly amount and his Hinshaw dissent explicitly foreshadowed the decision in People v. Pena where he would write for the majority (with Wilson in the dissent).  Pena held that a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake about whether a traffic infraction had occurred would provide probable cause for the stop.  So the current state of the law is that the police need probable cause that a traffic infraction has occurred to stop a car, but with the byzantine nature of New York’s V.T.L., they will probably be able to come up with some “reasonable mistake” about a broken tail light or an improper window tint.  We must be aggressive in challenging traffic stops where possible because they are so obviously used in a discriminatory manner.