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United States v. Lavallee

decided: May 30, 1975.


Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, Edmund Port, Judge, denying appellant's application for a writ of habeas corpus.

Hays, Gurfein, and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hays

HAYS, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York denying appellant LaBelle's application for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court rejected LaBelle's claims that his arrest was illegal and that evidence seized from his car and apartment was obtained by means of an illegal search. We affirm the ruling of the district court.

LaBelle was originally convicted of murder in the first degree in the Renssalaer County Court in 1964 and sentenced to death. In December, 1968, this Court reversed the conviction, holding that LaBelle was entitled to a new trial because of a Bruton violation, see Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476, 88 S. Ct. 1620 (1968), at the original trial. United States ex rel. LaBelle v. Mancusi, 404 F.2d 690 (2d Cir. 1968). At retrial, LaBelle was again convicted of murder and sentenced, on July 2, 1970, to a term of life imprisonment. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, People v. LaBelle, 37 App. Div.2d 135, 322 N.Y.S.2d 746 (3d Dep't 1971), and on July 28, 1972, the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. The issues raised herein were presented to the state courts on a pretrial motion to suppress before the new trial and during the direct appeal. LaBelle is currently serving his sentence in the Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, New York.


On November 30, 1963, the New York police discovered the body of a murder victim, Rosemary Snay, in Renssalaer County. Lieutenant-Supervisor Brandon of the New York Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation was placed in charge of investigating the homicide, and at some point began to suspect Edward LaBelle.

On December 2, 1963, one Mary Dolan, aged fourteen, was referred to Brandon and complained to him that she had been assaulted by two men on the same day and in the same area where the Snay murder had occurred. In her unsworn statement to the police, Dolan described the two men and the car in which they were riding. She stated that as she was walking home, the men made repeated attempts to get her into their car, one occupant twice emerging from the car and physically grabbing her. Dolan evaded her assailants and, after pretending to enter one home, ran to a house with its lights on, where she stood. The men continued to pursue Dolan, parking nearby and turning off the car lights. Soon afterward, the car started up again and drove slowly past Dolan at which time Dolan took down the vehicle's license number. Several minutes later some of Dolan's friends drove by in a car and Dolan joined them. They pursued the car that had been following Dolan, and pulled alongside it at a red light. One of Dolan's friends, Richard Smith, who apparently recognized the driver as LaBelle, whom he had known previously, asked the occupants of the car why they had tried to pick up Dolan. The occupants denied trying to grab Dolan, and when the light changed drove away.

On the basis of Dolan's information, Lt. Brandon telephoned Detective Leo Barry and asked him to apply to a magistrate for two "John Doe" arrest warrants charging the misdemeanor of assault in the third degree. Barry obtained the arrest warrants from a magistrate.*fn1 Brandon gave the warrants to Officers Keating and Garrett for execution, and on December 3, 1963, Keating and Garrett arrested LaBelle. They testified at the suppression hearing that they first spotted LaBelle as he was getting into his car and that they followed his car in their own vehicle, awaiting an opportunity to execute the warrant. According to their testimony there was a great deal of ice and snow on the road and LaBelle's car, having bald tires, skidded and came to a halt on a hill. Keating and Garrett pulled up behind LaBelle's car and arrested him for assault. They notified police headquarters of the arrest of LaBelle and the location of his car, and received instructions to remain at the scene until another investigator, Officer White, arrived. When White came, Keating and Garrett took their prisoner to the station, leaving White at the scene. Because of the icy condition of the road, White checked to see if the handbrake of petitioner's car was on. As he did so, White noticed what appeared to be bloodstains on the dashboard. White called Lt. Brandon who sent a tow truck to the scene. The car was towed away to police facilities where it was searched. The search revealed several items of highly incriminating evidence linking LaBelle to the Snay murder. The bloodstain and other stains in the interior of the car were analyzed and found to match the blood type of the murder victim. The search also disclosed several hairs of the same type as the victim's, a zipper talon which fit the zipper on the victim's pants, and part of a brassiere strap which fit a missing part of the victim's brassiere. A search of the car's trunk disclosed a crowbar and hatchet, both of which contained blood and hairs of the same type as the victim's. The police, citing the evidence seized in the car, then obtained a search warrant to search LaBelle's home, where they seized clothing owned by LaBelle which contained human bloodstains and soil of the same metallic composition as the soil where Snay's body was found. Some seventeen hours after his arrest, LaBelle was arraigned for the Snay murder.*fn2

The trial court denied LaBelle's motion to suppress, holding that there was ample testimony justifying the seizure of the car and that the removal of the car to the police garage to be searched was justified by the fact that it would have been difficult to search the car on the road where the arrest occurred. The trial court did however charge the jury that both the arrest warrant and petitioner's arrest were illegal.

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed that the arrest warrant on which LaBelle was arrested was invalid, but found the arrest to be lawful as one based on probable cause. People v. LaBelle, supra, 322 N.Y.S.2d at 748. The Appellate Division further held that once Officer White had observed what he believed to be a bloodstain on the dashboard, the police had, independent of the arrest, probable cause to search the car in connection with the Snay murder. Id. at 748-50. The New York Court of Appeals denied LaBelle permission to appeal.

The district court adopted the findings and analysis of the Appellate Division and denied petitioner's application for a writ of habeas corpus. We affirm the order of the district court.


We consider first appellant's claim that his arrest was illegal and that therefore the initial warrantless seizure of his car cannot be justified as incident to a lawful arrest. See, e.g., Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, 34-35, 10 L. Ed. 2d 726, 83 S. Ct. 1623 (1963); United States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56, 60, 94 L. Ed. 653, 70 S. Ct. 430 (1950). In determining the validity of LaBelle's arrest, we must look to the applicable state law, in this case the law of the state of New York. Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, supra, at 37; United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 589-90, 92 L. Ed. 210, 68 S. Ct. 222 (1948). We agree that the "John Doe" arrest warrant for misdemeanor assault on which the officers based their arrest of LaBelle was invalid under the New York law then in effect because the underlying papers were unsworn and otherwise technically deficient. See Code of Crim. Proc. ยง 148 (McKinney Supp. 1967).*fn3 However, we hold, as did the Appellate Division, that LaBelle's arrest, although made pursuant to an invalid warrant, is nonetheless lawful because it was supported by probable cause independent of the defective warrant. See Draper v. United States, 358 U.S. 307, 310-11, 3 L. Ed. 2d 327, 79 S. Ct. 329 (1959); Mayer v. Moeykens, 494 F.2d 855, 858 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 417 U.S. 926, 41 L. Ed. 2d 229, 94 S. Ct. 2633 (1974); United States ...

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