There are many circumstances in which New York police are authorized to conduct traffic stops, provided they follow certain rules. A vehicle stop is lawful when it is based on probable cause that the driver has committed a traffic infraction, or if there is reasonable suspicion that a vehicle occupant is involved in criminal activity.
When a trooper stops a vehicle without any lawful grounds, the evidence that is collected during the stop may not be used against the defendant. In a recent case, New York’s Court of Appeals dismissed the indictment of a man who was sentenced to five years in prison on drug and weapon possession charges after an unlawful traffic stop.
A state trooper stopped Robert Hinshaw’s vehicle in Buffalo in November 2014. He performed a license plate inquiry, which showed Hinshaw was driving an “impounded vehicle.” According to the police database, the vehicle was not to be treated as stolen and no further action was necessary based on the impound report alone.
Hinshaw told the trooper the car was impounded after being stolen recently. He had already paid to have it released, but the database had not been updated. The trooper, however, decided to search the vehicle after smelling marijuana. He found the drug along with a gun, leading to Hinshaw’s arrest.
The court determined the traffic stop was unlawful as Hinshaw had committed no illegal activities that justified it. The impound report by itself did not provide the trooper with probable cause to stop his vehicle for a traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The court noted that the police database did not present solid evidence of criminality as vehicles may be impounded for many different reasons, including non-criminal ones.