The police entered the apartment building with the owner's consent in order to keep the common areas free from drugs and crime. They found the defendant drinking alcohol on the third floor, so they decided to give him a summons for violating New York's open containers law, which prohibits alcoholic beverages in any "public place." The officer frisked defendant and found an illegal firearm. Should the courts suppress the firearm as the fruit of an unlawful search?
The case is United States v. Diaz, decided on April 18. There are two issues here: did the officer have probable cause to search Diaz? And was the warrantless search illegal if the officer did not intend to arrest defendant when he began the search? The Court of Appeals (Sack, Walker and Chim) upholds the search.
Issue number 1 asks if the officer had probable cause to arrest defendant for violating the open container law. This is tricky because the apartment building stairwell is arguably not a public place under the New York City penal code, which defines public place as "a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access, including, but not limited to, any highway, street, road, sidewalk, parking area, shopping area, place of amusement, playground, park or beach located within the city." Since the law says nothing about locked residential buildings or common areas, did the officer reasonably believe it was a public place under the law? The Court of Appeals says Yes. The Supreme Court said a few years ago (Heien v. North Carolina) that the police are able to arrest someone based on their reasonable misunderstanding of the law that authorized the arrest. Judge Sack says the City law is ambiguous and the courts have not yet clarified its scope. Some trial courts in New York have interpreted the City law to include apartment building lobbies. For these reasons, the officer acted reasonably under Supreme Court authority, even if the City law did not expressly authorize this search.
Issue number 2 asks whether the police can legally search someone if, at the time of the search, he did not intend to arrest the defendant, and makes the arrest after he finds something illegal, in this case, a gun. The Second Circuit took up this issue in 1977, ruling that a search was legal because the officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for speeding, regardless of whether or nor the officer intended to arrest the defendant before finding drugs in the car. 1977 was a long time ago, but cases from 1977 can still be good law. While the defendant argues that the 1977 precedent has been repudiated by subsequent precedent, the Second Circuit is not buying it. This arrest was legal.