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Feb 28 2017

Warrantless police search not justified in weapons possession case

A New York state appellate court recently threw out multiple weapons charges against a man accused of stockpiling firearms and explosives in his parents’ Long Island home. New York has some of the nation’s strictest weapons laws, especially when it comes to firearms. However, in weapons possession cases certain errors made by law enforcement at the time of arrest, such as illegal searches, can lead to dropped charges.

Marc Ringel, the 57-year-old defendant in the case, was arrested in 2012 following a police search of the Long Island residence. Nassau County police confiscated 120 guns of various sizes and calibers, forged gun permits, ammunition, grenades, chemicals for explosive devices, forged currency and 10 pounds of marijuana. An Appellate Division panel unanimously ruled that the police search was illegal and that officers had no right to enter the house without a warrant.

Ringel was charged with 35 counts of weapons possession, criminal possession of a forged instrument in the first and second degrees, criminal use of a firearm in the first and second degrees, unlicensed possession of explosives, unlawful storage of explosives and reckless endangerment in the first degree. He was released from prison after serving nearly five years of a 10-year sentence.

Weapons possession charges, especially criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, are considered among the most serious in the state and are aggressively enforced. Convicted offenders face a mandatory prison sentence of between 3 ½ years and 15 years. A person could potentially be found guilty of the offense when they possess a loaded firearm outside their home without a New York permit, regardless of intent.

Nassau County police responded to a silent alarm call at the Long Island home on the afternoon of March 6, 2012. Ringel told the authorities his parents were away in Florida. Thinking he might be lying, officers told Ringel they needed to open the door “and make sure everybody is okay.”

Ringel’s behavior was described as “shifty” and “very jittery” when police confronted him in the driveway of the house. However, the court said his questionable demeanor did not provide “the objective reasonable facts giving rise to a reasonable belief that someone in the house required emergency assistance” that would have justified a warrantless entry.

Although Ringel allegedly tried to go back inside the house and block the police from entering, they eventually managed to gain entry. No one was inside, but an officer spotted a handgun and two hand grenades. Authorities then obtained a search warrant and found the cache of weapons.

Ringel filed a motion to suppress his statements to the authorities and the evidence found in the house. It was denied. He pleaded guilty to the charges but appealed the suppression decision. A panel then held that suppression should have been granted.

In this case, the police could have taken other steps to check their suspicions regarding the silent alarm without intruding on an individual’s constitutional right to retreat into his home. According to Ringel’s lawyer, Nassau County police officers overstepped their bounds when they forced their way into the home in response to the silent alarm.

One of the Fourth Amendment exceptions to requiring a warrant is an emergency situation in which someone needs assistance. While the police claimed safety was a concern due to the silent alarm going off, Ringel’s lawyer said, “Even the District Attorney admitted that the silent alarm wasn’t enough [grounds to enter the home], because there are too many of them and many are false alarms.”

The bottom line is an individual’s rights under the law should not be disregarded. Attorneys work to protect such rights for those accused of weapons possession charges and other offenses by ensuring they are treated fairly.