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Defendant Contends Evidence Should be Supressed


On March 22, 1996, the police obtained a search warrant for 2130 East Tremont Avenue, Apartment 7E, in Bronx County. The warrant authorized seizure of cocaine possession and crack-cocaine possession and evidence tending to demonstrate that the premises are utilized for the unlawful possession, packaging and sale of crack-cocaine and cocaine, to wit: scales, plastic bags and other paraphernalia. The warrant was issued in conjunction with a long-term narcotics investigation, during which undercover officers had purchased large amounts of cocaine from occupants of the subject apartment on several prior occasions.

A Bronx Drug Crime Lawyer said that, on the same evening, a detective and several other officers executed the search warrant. Upon entering the apartment the detective saw four individuals, two of whom he recognized as subjects of the investigation. The police searched the apartment and recovered a large amount of currency, narcotics, a gun and several forms of drug paraphernalia from inside the apartment. Police officers stationed outside the building recovered drugs wrapped in a paper towel, which had been thrown out of a window by one of the occupants of the apartment.

A New York Criminal Lawyer said about 20 to 30 minutes after the initial police entry, the apartment “buzzer” rang while the police were completing their search. The officers stationed outside the building informed the detective by radio that a Hispanic male was ringing the downstairs buzzer. The detective instructed them to allow the man to enter the building, and further instructed the officers in the hallway to stay out of sight.

After hearing a knock on the door, the police opened the door and defendant entered the apartment. There were approximately 6 officers in the apartment with guns drawn, including the detective, who shouted, “Police, don’t move. Put your hands up.” Defendant raised his hands in the air, and a brown paper package fell out from underneath defendant’s jacket to the floor. The package appeared to be a brown lunch bag wrapped with tape. The detective, an eight-year veteran who had worked on hundreds of narcotics-related cases, immediately concluded that the bag contained narcotics. The detective specifically testified at the suppression hearing that in his experience as a narcotics officer, he had seen such bags and wrapping, and, based on that experience, he believed that the package contained narcotics. Upon opening the bag, the detective found a baggie containing half a kilo of cocaine and defendant was arrested.

A Westchester County Lawyer said that, defendant moved for pre-trial to suppress the physical evidence recovered by the police and Supreme Court granted the motion. In a detailed written opinion, the court determined that the actions of the police prior to the point at which the detective opened the package were justified under the circumstances. However, the court concluded that the warrantless search of the package was in violation of defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights since none of the exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the plain view exception, were applicable. On reargument, the court adhered to its ruling, finding that the hearing evidence failed to establish that the packaging was so distinctive that the bag’s contents were readily identifiable. The People appealed.

The issue in this case is whether defendant is entitled to the suppression of the evidence against him on the ground that the warrantless search made on this drug crime case was obtained in violation of the plain view doctrine.

The Court held that, under the plain view doctrine, if the sight of an object gives the police probable cause to believe that it is the instrumentality of a crime, the object may be seized without a warrant if three conditions are met: (1) the police are lawfully in a position from which the object is viewed; (2) the police have lawful access to the object; and (3) the object’s incriminating nature is immediately apparent.

The Court said that, the first requirement is not at issue here, since defendant has never argued that the police presence in the apartment was unlawful. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said with regard to the question of lawful access to the object, defendant’s argument that his detention was illegal may not be considered on this appeal. Supreme Court found defendant’s detention justified, and since this finding was not adverse to the People, the appellant on this appeal, it is not properly before this court.

Thus, the sole issue to be determined is whether the incriminating nature of this package was “immediately apparent” so as to permit its warrantless seizure under the plain view doctrine. This aspect of the plain view doctrine was discussed in a series of United States Supreme Court cases. The Court held that the warrantless search of personal luggage taken from a lawfully stopped automobile violated the Fourth Amendment. However, in contrasting the expectation of privacy associated with personal luggage with that of other personal articles, the Court stated:

Not all containers and packages found by the police during the course of a search will deserve the full protection of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, some containers (for example a kit of burglar’s tools or a gun case) by their very nature cannot support any reasonable expectation of privacy because their contents can be inferred form their outward appearance.

This Court has previously upheld warrantless seizures of opaque packages under the plain view doctrine where the police had probable cause to believe the packages contained narcotics. In People v. Aqudelo, a case bearing strong similarity to the instant one, the police were executing a search warrant in an apartment when the defendant and another rang the doorbell and were permitted entry by the police. After entering the apartment, defendant dropped her shoulder bag to the floor causing a loud thump. Since drugs and guns had been recovered from the apartment, an officer picked up the bag and felt something hard. He opened the bag, observing two tightly wrapped, square, shiny brown packages. Having seen narcotics wrapped in similar “brick” form on 10 prior occasions, and having recovered one from that apartment during the search, they were seized by the police and found to contain cocaine.

The Supreme Court in Aqudelo granted suppression for failure to obtain a separate search warrant. This Court reversed, stating: Applying this legal authority to the facts before us, which indicates defendant brought two distinctively wrapped packages to a place where narcotics were stored, and the arresting officer, in view of his experience, recognized that packaging as the type used to wrap narcotics, we find that the police did not need a search warrant to open them, since ‘the distinctive configuration of the containers proclaimed their contents’.

This precedent compels the conclusion that the warrantless seizure of the package dropped by defendant was proper. As in Aqudelo, the seizure in this case took place in a veritable narcotics warehouse, where the judicially approved search had resulted in the recovery of money, drugs and a gun, and where undercover officers had already made large-scale narcotics purchases from the targets of the investigation. Thus, when defendant of his own volition sought entry into an apartment being utilized in the narcotics trade, and dropped a suspicious package after the police detained him there, it was hardly a hunch for the police to associate the package with the illicit drug crime activity in the apartment.

The suspicions of the police ripened into probable cause by the outward appearance of the. The detective testified that in his experience as a narcotics officer, involving hundreds of narcotics cases, he had seen narcotics packaged in such bags with the same tape wrapping. Based on his experience, it was “immediately apparent” to the detective that the package contained narcotics. That he did not specify exactly how many times he had previously seen such packaging does not alter this conclusion, since the record stands uncontradicted that he immediately recognized it as drug packaging from his own personal experience. Thus, since the distinctive character of the package itself spoke volumes as to its contents particularly to the trained eye of the officer, the detective had probable cause to associate the property with criminal activity and its warrantless seizure was proper.

If you have been charged of cocaine possession or other drug crimes, you need the help of a Bronx Drug Crime Attorney to explain to you the legal consequences of your case in criminal law. Without the help of a Bronx Criminal Attorney, you will not be able to defend your case. Call us at Stephen Bikis and Associates for free consultation.

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