In this Criminal action, Defendant challenges his arrest and the seizure of physical evidence. At issue is the right of the police to stop a taxi for the purpose of handing out safety pamphlets.
In July 1994, Police Officer and Detective, both of the same Robbery Squad Precinct, were on patrol duty in Queens. They were dressed in plainclothes and rode in an unmarked car. This team was temporarily assigned to the Taxi Livery Robbery Task Force. Their assignment, for a period of 30 days, was to conduct a safety check on cabs, giving them advice on the services rendered by the Police Department to taxicabs and advising them of hazardous conditions within their industry. Their major duty consisted of stopping cabs and issuing a departmental pamphlet, entitled “Safety Tips for Cab Drivers.” In addition, they would advise taxi drivers that plainclothes officers were present in the area and if assistance was needed, they could request help.
At approximately 3:00 A.M., the officers were in the vicinity of 113th Street and Farmers Boulevard performing their duty of stopping cabs. At that time, the Officer observed a moving 1986 Ford vehicle bearing a taxicab license plate. Two people were in the rear. The officers, who had previously stopped three other cabs, made a U-turn and drove behind the taxi. For a short while they flashed their lights and sounded their siren for the purpose of pulling the taxi over.
The taxi responded by slowing down and pulling to the curb. As it did so, the passenger in the right rear seat opened the car door and fled into the night. Once the taxi stopped, a few seconds later, the other passenger opened the left rear door and exited, moving rapidly to the rear of the taxi. The Officer promptly stopped him.
The officer noted that the left car door was still open and looked inside the taxi. He observed a handgun on the left rear floorboard. The passenger, who is the defendant in this action, was placed under arrest for possession of a gun. He was handcuffed and searched. A substance resembling crack cocaine was found in a plastic change purse in his left rear pocket, as was a plastic bag of marijuana, located in the right front pocket.
Defendant now challenges the initial stopping of the taxi, the ensuing search of the vehicle, the seizure of the gun and both drugs. He alleges a lack of probable cause to justify a vehicle stop.
The defendant argues that the police action in this case was simply a roadblock or a safety check, permitting the halting of any taxi at random. As such, defendant reasons that the police were not performing their duty in a non-arbitrary, uniform and systematic manner. Basically, it is contended that the police were utilizing a safety pamphlet as a search warrant in violation of the constitution.
While the police in this case had authority to stop taxis for safety warnings, a review of the facts indicates this authority was both limited and used with discretion. The stop in this case was not a roadblock; the police did not target a specific intersection in Queens and stop every passing taxi. The courts have held forth that a roadblock occurs when every car at a given location is halted during a specific period of time. Nor was it an investigatory stop to determine or deter potential law violations. Rather, the purpose of this case was strictly preventive–warning taxi drivers of possible dangers and assisting them in a practical fashion. These warnings were administered only to taxis in a general area. The cab in question was only the fourth car halted in approximately five hours. It must be kept in mind that although this was the major duty imposed upon the officers that night, they still had their normal tasks to perform. Nor is there any indication that the police intended to stop the taxi for any other purpose than the safety warnings. The pamphlet was not a pretext but a valid instructional aid.
Finally, as regards the taxi stop, the evidence shows that the police were aware of the intrusive nature of their actions and deliberately sought to avoid creating an emergency situation, not wanting to scare the other cars. This would indicate that the police action was not based on whim, but on planned administrative procedure. Considering all of these elements, the facts indicate a restrained limited use of police authority for a valid purpose which produced car stops in a uniform and non-arbitrary manner.
Therefore, evaluating the above facts, this court concludes that the non-target stop was part of a valid but limited safety program aimed at reducing crime in the taxi field. This program was part of a deliberate police effort to assist the taxi industry. Such a program deals with individual safety and is clearly within the scope of police duties.
“The role of the police in our society is a multifaceted one. On the one hand the police are mandated to enforce the law; yet the extent to which this authorizes the police to investigate or to prevent crime is ambiguous at best. On the other hand, and more important, we must recognize the multiplicity and complexity of tasks assumed by the police. As public servants, the police perform the lion’s share of services expected of local government. Among other functions, the police in a democratic society are charged with the protection of constitutional rights, the maintenance of order, the control of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the mediation of domestic and other non-criminal conflicts and supplying emergency help and assistance. To consider the actions of the police solely in terms of arrest and criminal process is an unnecessary distortion. We must take cognizance of the fact that well over 50% of police work is spent in pursuits unrelated to crime “.
Probable cause to search an automobile was extended to any grounds which would justify the arrest of the occupants of the car. With the passage of time, it became apparent to the Federal courts that police authorities had virtually as many reasons to stop cars as they had to halt pedestrians. A more complex reason for halting vehicles arose from investigative stops. These car stops sprang from police experience and dealt with situations in which the “officers making the stop have neither probable cause to believe nor reasonable suspicion that either the automobile or its occupants are subject to seizure under the applicable criminal laws”. This form of police interference was first permitted in international border situations when the Supreme Court ruled that border patrol agents were permitted to halt any vehicle at random for the purpose of determining whether it contained illegal aliens or was involved in smuggling operations. The rationale for this border stop was “because of the importance of the governmental interest at stake, the minimal intrusion of a brief stop, and the absence of practical alternatives for policing the border”.
Thus, the Supreme Court recognized the fact that under some circumstances an initial auto stop may result from police initiative rather than suspicious actions on the part of the driver.
Turning to the present matter, defendant alleges that none of his actions brought him into the police zone of scrutiny. As far as the investigating officers were concerned, he was simply one of two passengers in a nighttime taxi. His presence was totally innocuous. Further, the taxi driver was not a subject of police suspicion in any fashion. This being the case, criminal defendant maintains that the authorities had no probable cause to stop the taxi and the ensuing searches and seizures were tainted as fruit of the poisonous tree. As regards the initial taxi stop, defendant argues that this was the equivalent of a roadblock and whatever justification the police might have possessed was nullified by the lack of specific guidelines governing such a form of intrusion.
Applying the above reasoning to the present case, this court finds that the stop in question is governed by its “reasonableness”. “Reasonableness” is determined by balancing the Fourth Amendment intrusion of individual interest against the “promotion of legitimate governmental interests” to arrive at a proper balance.
The stop in this case was administrative rather than investigative in nature, made for the purpose of deterring crime in the taxi-livery industry. Granted that the defendant was not a target, the police still had a legitimate reason to speak to the taxi driver. This involved a request to pull over. Although there was no investigation of crime or suspicious behavior, the police were still performing a duty, by making a cab driver aware of specific dangers and how such harm could be minimized. Prevention of crime is as necessary to law enforcement as its detection. Further, although the police had no specific training or instructions on how to advise cab drivers, they were trained in sex crimes pertaining to robberies and assault within the taxi industry. Since their major task involved handing out pamphlets, much had to be left to the officers’ own discretion. Thus, the facts indicate that the police were pursuing legitimate governmental aims in raising the taxi drivers’ “perception of the risk” involved in driving in a specific Queens area.
Police officers are tasked to enforce the law not to use the law to abuse others. Here in Stephen Bilkis and Associates, our Queens County Criminal attorneys are here to protect you from the abuse committed by police operatives. We will assist you in filing the necessary actions against these people. If a crime was committed with a use of a gun, our Queens County Gun Crime lawyers will help you file the necessary action against the assailant. Call us now, we are here to help you.