The police officers of the 32nd precinct in New York City were assigned to conduct surveillance over the corner of 128th Street and 8th Avenue because this was known as a high-drug crime area. A New York Criminal Lawyer said many arrests for cocaine possession and heroin possession have been made at this corner.
One police officer saw perched atop a condemned building, holding binoculars and observing the goings on at the street corner. His partner was near the street corner, waiting for a signal from his partner on the rooftop.
At 1:30 pm of February 26, 1977, the police officer on the rooftop saw one man at the corner. Most passersby hurry on by but that man stayed put. He kept having brief conversations with those who come by him but those people moved on. The man stayed. The officer observed the man for forty-five minutes.
At 2:25 pm, a man wearing a leather jacket came and spoke to the man standing on the street corner. After a brief conversation, he saw the man he had been observing for forty-five minutes reach into his right breast pocket and hand a small plastic sachet to the man in the leather jacket. A New York Criminal Lawyer said the officer did not see money change hands.
The police officer radioed his partner who tailed the man in the leather jacket and arrested him. The police officer atop the building also came down from his perch and arrested the man standing at the street corner. After the man was placed under arrest, the officer patted him down and found more plastic sachets in the same right breast pocket.
At the station, the man admitted to the arresting police officers that he had on him sixteen plastic sachets. The police laboratory analyzed the contents of the sachets and found them to contain heroin.
The man was charged with heroin possession and sale. He was arraigned and he immediately moved for the suppression of the plastic sachets as evidence. The man contended that when he was arrested, the police officer atop the building had no probable cause. And so the evidence obtained on occasion of a search and arrest without probable cause should be suppressed.
The trial court held a hearing and the judge ruled that there was probable cause and so denied the motion for suppression of the plastic sachets. The defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.
The only question before the Court is whether or not the police officer had probable cause to approach and arrest the defendant after he saw just the passing of the plastic sachet.
A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said the Court held that while by itself the passing of plastic sachets is not enough to find that there was probable cause, the peculiar circumstances of this case favor a finding that there was probable cause.
First, the police officer was not a rookie cop. He had been a member of the 32nd precinct for seven years. He had collared 100 suspects and seventy-five of them had been involved in heroin possession and sale. Of these heroin arrests, forty took place at the same corner. Twenty-five arrests for heroin possession were made from personal observations he himself conducted using binoculars from a remote location.
Probable cause doesn’t mean that the officer was very sure that a sale of heroin had just taken place. He only needs to be reasonably sure that a heroin sale had probably taken place and his basis would be his personal experience.
The circumstance of the mere passing of a plastic sachet, taken by itself, in isolation, might not mean anything; but if this one circumstance were placed in context of the other facts observed by the police officer, then the totality of the circumstance shed light on the existence of probable cause.
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