People v. Walls


Factual Background: Someone called 911 asserting that a person had driven off in a van with a “long gun” in their possession.  The caller gave a description of the license plate and direction the van was going.  After a police dispatcher relayed this information, a nearby officer stopped Mr. Walls, who had a van that matched the description and location given. The officer found a gun fortuitously in plain view on the floor of Mr. Walls’ van.

At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that he had stopped Mr. Walls after receiving information identifying the van and allegations about the gun from the police dispatcher. However, the prosecution did not introduce the 911 recording itself or details about the call’s reliability, including whether it was made anonymously or had a credible basis. Nevertheless, the court denied Mr. Walls’ motion to suppress. The 911 recording subsequently came in at trial.

The Fourth Department affirmed the suppression court’s decision, finding that the totality of the information known by the police was enough to constitute reasonable suspicion to stop the van.

Issue Before the Court:  Whether an appellate court can consider evidence not presented at a suppression hearing but subsequently admitted at trial to justify the affirmance of a suppression decision.

Held: Nope. In an SSM decision, all seven judges of the Court (re)affirmed that a reviewing court may look only at the evidence that was actually before the suppression court when deciding whether to affirm or reverse a suppression decision. 

The evidence before the suppression court in Walls was insufficient to show the legality of the police stop because the prosecutor failed to offer into evidence the 911 call that provided the basis for the stop and failed to offer into evidence any information about the circumstances surrounding the call. For Mr. Walls, this meant that the gun was suppressed and his indictment for second-degree criminal possession of a weapon dismissed.

CAL Observes: No new law was really made here, as the Court has said for decades that the propriety of granting or denying a suppression motion must be determined based on evidence before the suppression court.  See People v. Gonzalez, 55 N.Y.2d 720 (1981). This case serves as a good reminder of that fact. 

Something particularly notable in Walls is that when the Fourth Department affirmed the suppression court’s denial of Mr. Walls’ motion, its majority opinion did not discuss anything about the fact that the 911 call was not played at the hearing.  Luckily, the Fourth Department decision included a dissent that did explicitly note the absence of the 911 call or indicia of its reliability at the suppression hearing.  Of course, most opinions do not have such helpful dissents, making Walls also a good reminder that the best issues to raise in a Court of Appeals leave letter may not always be obvious from the face of the opinion below.