Can New York Police Officers Search Closed Containers After a Lawful Arrest?

While state and federal law restrict a police officer’s ability to conduct a warrantless search, courts allow officers to perform a limited search in certain situations. One of these situations involves after an officer makes a lawful arrest. Thus, it is common after a police officer arrests someone that the officer searches the person to make sure that they are not armed. However, here too, there are limitations on the permissible scope of a search. In a recent opinion, a New York appellate court issued an opinion discussing the allowable scope of a search incident to a valid arrest.

The court’s opinion is brief; however, the case arose after the defendant was arrested on 17 counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument in the first degree. While the facts surrounding the defendant’s arrest were not provided, the defendant did not contest their arrest. Instead, the defendant argued that the arresting officer exceeded the scope of a search incident to her arrest.

Apparently, the officer found an envelope in the defendant’s pocket at the time of her arrest. The officer then “peeked” inside the envelope to find evidence that the prosecution intended to use against her at trial. The testimony was not clear whether the envelope was partially open. However, to the court, it didn’t matter.

The court explained that by opening the envelope and peering inside, the officer’s conduct was a “search.” And because the officer did not point to any facts to justify exigent circumstances, such a search was not justified. Thus, the court determined that the evidence must be suppressed.

What Can Officers Search Upon a Valid Arrest?

When a police officer arrests someone, they are permitted to conduct a limited search of the arrestee. This is referred to as a search incident to an arrest. The reason courts allow searches incident to an arrest is to determine if the arrestee is armed or dangerous. For example, if an officer was not allowed to search someone after they arrested them, there is the possibility the person was armed and, even if handcuffed, could access the weapon. However, anything beyond this limited search is not permissible unless the item to be searched is within plain view. Even then, the incriminating nature of the item must be immediately apparent to justify a further search.

Have You Been Arrested for a New York Crime?

If you face criminal charges in New York, reach out to the Law Office of Mark A. Siesel. Attorney Siesel is a veteran criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling a wide range of cases, including New York DWI offenses, gun charges, drug crimes and more. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with Attorney Siesel, you can reach him at (914) 428-7386 or through his online form. With his help, you can ensure that your rights are respected throughout the process. The Law Office of Mark A. Siesel represents clients in Westchester County, Putnam County, Orange County, Dutchess County, Rockland County, and the boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, New York, Brooklyn, and Nassau County.