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People v. Tolentino

March 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Read, J.

This memorandum is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

At about 7:40 PM on New Year's Day in 2005, defendant Jose Tolentino was driving a car in the vicinity of West 181st Street and Broadway in New York City. The police stopped him for playing music too loudly, learned his name, and ran a computer check of Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) files to look up his driving record. When this check revealed that defendant's license was suspended with at least 10 suspensions imposed on at least 10 different dates, he was arrested and charged with one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree.

As part of an omnibus motion, defendant sought to suppress his driving record and any statements made after arrest; alternatively, he asked Supreme Court to hold a Mapp/Dunaway and/or a Huntley/Dunaway hearing. Defendant alleged that the police unlawfully stopped his car and illegally obtained his driving record from DMV. Specifically, he contended that his driving record was a suppressible fruit of a Fourth Amendment violation because "[t]he steps required to obtain a DMV records check are the stop of the vehicle and the elicitation of the driver's name or the driver's license number." As a result, defendant argued, "[b]ut for defendant's unlawful seizure by the police, his DMV records would not have been obtained in this case, and they are therefore the fruit of the police illegality." The People opposed the motion, first on the ground that the stop was legal; second, they took the position that, even if the stop were, in fact, illegal, a defendant's identity is never a suppressible fruit, and, in any event, a public agency possessed the records.

On July 12, 2005, Supreme Court granted defendant's motion for a Huntley/Dunaway hearing, but denied his request for a Mapp hearing. The judge held that "[a]n individual does not possess a legitimate expectation of privacy in files maintained by the [DMV] and such records do not constitute evidence which is subject to suppression under a fruit of the poisonous tree analysis." On August 3, 2005, defendant pleaded guilty to the crime charged in exchange for five years' probation; on September 28, 2005, Supreme Court sentenced him as promised.

Defendant appealed, claiming that because his driving record was suppressible, he was entitled to a remand for a hearing. The Appellate Division disagreed and unanimously affirmed (59 AD3d 298 [1st Dept 2009]). The court relied on the United States Supreme Court's decision in INS v Lopez-Mendoza (468 US 1032, 1039 [1984]) for the proposition that the identity of a defendant is never suppressible as the fruit of an unlawful arrest. And because defendant's identity led to the discovery of his DMV records, those records were likewise not suppressible. Finally, the Appellate Division noted that the records had been compiled independently of defendant's arrest. A Judge of this court granted defendant permission to appeal (12 NY3d 860 [2009]), and we now affirm.

In INS v Lopez-Mendoza (468 US at 1039) the Supreme Court held that the "'body' or identity of a defendant . . . in a criminal or civil proceeding is never itself suppressible as a fruit of an unlawful arrest, even if it is conceded that an unlawful arrest, search, or interrogation occurred." A contrary holding would "permit[] a defendant to hide who he is [and] would undermine the administration of the criminal justice system" (United States v Farias-Gonzalez, 556 F3d 1181, 1187 [11th Cir 2009]). Accordingly, defendant does not argue that his name or identity would be subject to suppression as a fruit of the allegedly unlawful stop. Rather, he claims that the pre-existing DMV records are subject to suppression because without the alleged illegality, the police would not have learned his name and would not have been able to access these records.

Federal circuit courts addressing this issue in the context of those suspected of illegally residing in the country have held that, when the police stop or seize a defendant, learn his or her name, and use that name to check pre-existing government immigration files, the records are not subject to suppression (United States v Farais-Gonzalez, 556 F3d at 1189; United States v Bowley, 435 F3d 426, 430-431 [3d Cir 2006]; United States v Roque-Villanueva, 175 F3d 345, 346 [5th Cir 1999]). For example, in Hoonsilapa v INS (575 F2d 735, 737 [9th Cir 1978]), the government sought to deport an alien after learning from his INS administrative file that he was in the country illegally. The alien moved to suppress the file, arguing that it was the "fruit" of an illegal search and arrest (id.). The Ninth Circuit rejected the argument, noting that the alien's INS file was already in the possession of the government at the time of the purportedly illegal arrest and search, and that the government's "decision to search the INS files was only the 'product' of the discovery of [the alien's] identity during the illegal arrest and search" (id. at 738).

The court emphasized that "the mere fact that Fourth Amendment illegality directs attention to a particular suspect does not require exclusion of evidence subsequently unearthed from independent sources" (id.).

The facts here are analogous. The officers learned defendant's identity when they stopped his car; that knowledge permitted the police to run a computer check that led to the retrieval of defendant's DMV records. Under the rationale of Lopez-Mendoza and the above federal circuit court decisions, defendant's DMV records were therefore not suppressible as the fruit of the purportedly illegal stop. In short, "there is no sanction . . . when an illegal arrest only leads to discovery of the man's identity and that merely leads to the official file or other independent evidence" (United States v Guzman-Bruno, 27 F3d 420, 422 [9th Cir 1994] [internal citation and quotation omitted]).

While not forming an independent basis for this outcome, the result is further supported by the nature of the records at issue, which were public records already in the possession of authorities (United States v Crews, 445 US 463, 475-77 and n 22 [1980] [plurality] ["[t]he exclusionary rule enjoins the Government from benefitting from evidence it has unlawfully obtained; it does not reach backward to taint information that was in official hands prior to any illegality"]; see also Matter of Jason W, 272 AD2d 214, 214 [1st Dept 2000]; People v Bargas, 101 AD2d 751, 752 [1st Dept 1984]).

In People v Pleasant (54 NY2d 972 [1981]), we applied similar principles to deny exclusion of independently-compiled information in the possession of a public agency. There, the defendant was illegally arrested in Suffolk County for weapon possession, at which time the police discovered that one of the guns recovered during the unlawful arrest had been used in a robbery in Bronx County. Suffolk County authorities conveyed this information, along with the defendant's name and date of birth, to the Bronx police. The Bronx police then retrieved the defendant's photograph from the Bureau of Criminal Identification and showed it to the robbery victims, who positively identified the defendant from a photographic array. After the defendant was arrested on a warrant, one of the robbery victims identified him in a lineup.

We rejected the defendant's claim that the photographic identifications should be suppressed as the fruit of the illegal arrest, holding that "only defendant's identity was obtained as a result of the unlawful seizure" and the photographic identifications "were not an exploitation of the antecedent illegality, as defendant's photograph was obtained from a source independent of the unlawful arrest, and such identifications proceeded from the witnesses' independent recollections" (Pleasant at 974 and n* [internal citation omitted]). Similarly, the DMV records here were obtained by the police from a source independent of the claimed illegal stop.

As the Farias-Gonzalez court pointed out, the policy rationale of the exclusionary rule would not be served by its application to identity-related evidence. The social costs of excluding such evidence are great: courts and the government are entitled to know who defendants are, since permitting defendants to hide their identity would undermine the administration of the criminal justice system and essentially allow suppression of the court's jurisdiction. On the other side of the equation, there are few deterrence benefits. The Constitution does not prohibit the government from requiring a person to identify himself to a police officer. In addition, "even if a defendant in a criminal prosecution successfully suppresses all evidence of his identity and the charges are dropped, the Government can collect new, admissible evidence of identity and re-indict him. This is so because identity-related evidence is not unique evidence that, once suppressed, cannot be obtained by other means" (Farias-Gonzalez, 556 F3d at 1188-1189 [internal citation omitted]). As a result, "[t]he application of the exclusionary rule to identity-related evidence will have a minimal deterrence benefit, as its true effect will often be merely to postpone a criminal prosecution" (id. at 1189).

Nor do we believe that "[t]oday's opinion [will] give[] law enforcement an incentive to illegally stop, detain, and search anyone for the sole purpose of discovering the person's identity and determining if it matches any government records accessible by the police" (dissenting op at 5). Police are already deterred from conducting illegal car stops because ...

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