Are Pretextual Stops by the Police Constitutional in New York ?
In People v. Robinson, 97 NY2d 341, 767 N.E.2d 638, 741 N.Y.S.2d 147 (2001), the court was presented with the argument that the stops were pretextual and held that "the alternatives to upholding a stop based solely upon reasonable cause to believe a traffic infraction has been committed put unacceptable restraints on law enforcement." Id.
The Robinson Court found that this was true "whether those restrictions are based upon the primary motivation of an officer or upon what a reasonable traffic police officer would have done in the circumstances" and further held that "rather than restrain the police in these instances, the police should be permitted to do what they are sworn to do--uphold the law." Id.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court of the United States "recognized that in contrast to random, suspicionless searches, the decision to stop a vehicle is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic infraction has occurred." Id. at 354.
Moreover, because the VTL, similar to the Policy, "provides an objective grid upon which to measure probable cause, a stop based on that standard is not arbitrary in the context of constitutional search and seizure jurisprudence." Id. at 355.
Accordingly, "probable cause stops are not based on the discretion of police officers. They are based on violations of law." Id.
The Court of Appeals elaborates that, in the traffic stop context, "an officer may choose to stop someone for a 'minor' violation after considering a number of factors, including traffic and weather conditions, but the officer's authority to stop a vehicle is circumscribed by the requirement of a violation of a duly enacted law." Id.
Most importantly, "in other words,it is the violation of a statute that both triggers the officer's authority to make the stop and limits the officer's discretion." Id.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the Supreme Court in Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), which "unanimously held that where a police officer has probable cause to detain a person temporarily for a traffic violation, that seizure does not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution even though the underlying reason for the stop might have been to investigate some other matter." Robinson, 97 NY2d at 348.
In agreement with Whren, the Court of Appeals held that limiting a police officer's authority to make a stop "would unduly restrict police from enforcing laws that the Legislature has seen fit to impose on individuals." Id. at 356.