NY: Stop because license plate reader erroneously said car should have still been in impound lot was unreasonable

The stop here was based a license plate search. The Buffalo impound lot had not updated its records that defendant got his car out of impound more than a week earlier. There was no traffic violation. The stop was unreasonable just to inquire. People v. Hinshaw, 2020 NY Slip Op 04816, 2020 N.Y. LEXIS 1905 (Sept. 1, 2020):

The trooper here did not observe any violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law and “everything looked good.” Putting aside the result of the license plate inquiry, “[t]he trooper candidly testified that he had had no reason to stop defendant” (People v Ingle, 36 NY2d at 420). It is clear, then, that without the result of the license plate inquiry the stop of Mr. Hinshaw would have been unlawful and “the evidence obtained by that seizure [could] not be used as evidence against him” (id.).

The result of the license plate check provided neither probable cause to conclude a traffic infraction had occurred nor any basis for an objectively reasonable belief that criminal behavior had occurred or was afoot. Although the People and our dissenting colleague argue that the trooper understood the “generic” impound notification to require further investigation as to its cause, the trooper’s speculation that the car could have been impounded for “registration . . . problems,” the “plates could have been suspended,” “insurance could have been suspended,” or the vehicle could have been stolen was just that — pure speculation. Indeed, the absence of any underlying Vehicle and Traffic Law violation from the database inquiry result undermined those unsupported hypotheses. The trooper’s general knowledge, training, and experience (dissenting op at 28) is completely untethered from the question at hand: the objective reasonableness of his conclusion that the response to the license plate inquiry meant a traffic law had been violated or a crime had been, or was about to be, committed. In fact, the trooper testified that he had minimal prior experience with such impound notifications, thus undercutting the proposition that he could objectively conclude from such a notice that a violation or crime had occurred or was imminent. The trooper’s subjective belief that the impound was based on some violation or illegality, honestly held, is insufficient unless it rests on some objective basis (see generally People v Edwards, 14 NY3d 741, 742 [2010]). The trooper provided no such basis, and indeed never testified that any one of the hypothesized offenses pertained to Mr. Hinshaw.

The trooper’s list omitted perfectly innocent — and just as likely — explanations as to why an impound notice might appear in a license plate search, including the actual reason in this case: Mr. Hinshaw lawfully recovered his car from the impound lot, and the system still had not corrected the status nearly two weeks later. A car may be impounded for a variety of reasons independent of a violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law or Penal Law. The police may impound a car for the safety of the vehicle and its contents (see People v Tardi, 28 NY3d 1077, 1078 [2016]), or when necessary to protect public safety; such community caretaking is “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence” of criminal conduct (see Cady v Dombrowski, 413 US 433, 441 [1973]). Impounded cars are commonly towed for non-criminal reasons, such as unpaid parking tickets, parking in “no parking” zones or streets temporally designated for parades, public events, filming or bus routes or, as suggested by Tardi, “public safety.” That Mr. Hinshaw’s car had at one point been impounded by the Buffalo Police Department, therefore, did not provide the trooper a reasonable suspicion of criminality. Moreover, there were no facts establishing an objective basis to believe that the apparent removal or release of the vehicle from the impound lot was indicative of criminality. Reasonable suspicion “may not rest on equivocal or innocuous behavior’ that is susceptible of an innocent as well as a culpable interpretation” (People v Brannon, 16 NY3d 596, 602 [2011]). Because “there was not even a suggestion that the conduct of the defendant or his companions had been furtive in character before the police interfered with their car’s progress,” and “the record here is bare of any objective evidence of criminal activity as of the time of the stop” (Sobotker, 43 NY2d at 564-565), the stop of Mr. Hinshaw’s vehicle was invalid.

The trooper here lacked probable cause to believe Mr. Hinshaw had committed a traffic violation and identified no “credible facts establishing reasonable cause to believe that someone has violated a law” (Robinson, 97 NY2d at 354). Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, Mr. Hinshaw’s motion to suppress granted in its entirety, and the indictment dismissed.

Compare Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135 (2009), where an old warrant not cleared out of the system still supported the detention.

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