People v Noreiga
Court Discusses Whether the Warrantless Search of the Defendant’s Motor Vehicle was Legal
The defendant was arrested and charged with two counts of driving while intoxicated, one count of failing to obey a traffic control device and one count of consumption or possession of alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle.
The defendant was pulled over after making an illegal U-turn prohibited by signs and asked for his license and registration. The police officer observed that the defendant had a strong order of alcohol on his breath, bloodshot and watery eyes. The defendant denied drinking alcohol to the police officer but stated that the passengers were drinking. The defendant took a breathalyzer test and registered a 0.188 blood alcohol content and he was arrested and his car impounded. While the defendant was incarcerated, the arresting officer went to the vehicle to “secure it” and found two unopened bottles and four bottles opened that contained alcohol. The defendant request a Mapp/Dunaway hearing to suppress the results of the breathalyzer test and to suppress the six beer bottles found in the motor vehicle.
At the trial the court determined whether there was probable cause for the arrest. The officer initially stopped the defendant after he made an illegal U-turn. Therefore, the traffic infraction committed by the defendant was probable cause for the initially stop. After the defendant was stopped, the officer observed signs of intoxication such bloodshot eyes and the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. These observations gave the officer probable cause to believe that the defendant had committed an offense, that is, driving while intoxicated. Therefore, it was reasonable for the officer to request that the defendant take a chemical test which he agreed to take. The DWI defendant’s blood alcohol content of 0.188 exceeded the legal limit which led to the arrest of the defendant for driving while intoxicated. Another a breathalyzer test was administered to the defendant. Since the stop and arrest of the defendant were lawful, the defendant’s motion to suppress the test result was denied.
The criminal defendant’s other contention was the suppression of the alcohol found in his motor vehicle while impounded. The defendant asserted that the search and seizure was illegal. The People on the other hand, maintained that the search was legal. The search took place while the defendant was at the station house when the arresting officer went to lock up the motor vehicle. While securing the vehicle the officer saw beer bottles in it that were both opened and unopened. Under the Fourth Amendment it is unreasonable to seize evidence unless the evidence was within the plain view of the officer’s sight according to People v Spinelli, 35 NY2d 77  and the property was recovered as a result of an inventory search. Under the plain view doctrine, an object may be seized without a warrant where the police was lawfully in the position to view the object, the police had lawful access of the object and the object’s incriminating nature was apparent. Therefore, the People had to prove that the officer inadvertently saw the beer.
In the instant case, it was clear that the officer did not inadvertently see the beer bottles. But the People failed to prove that the officer had lawful access to the motor vehicle when he entered the vehicle to seize the beer. There was no evidence that it was urgent to enter the vehicle without a warrant to secure the bottles as the motor was already in police custody. The People have failed to justify the seizure by the officer based on the plain view doctrine and the defendant’s motion to suppress the beer bottles recovered from the vehicle was granted.
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