What happens when a New York defendant tosses evidence as he or she is fleeing from the police? The answer depends on the police action leading up to the stop.
Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York drug possession case involving the concept of forced abandonment. Under the state and federal constitutions, police officers must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify a search of a person or their belongings. In situations where a defendant discards an item, that is typically not seen as a “search.” Thus, situations that involve a defendant who voluntarily tosses items may not implicate their constitutional protections, because no “search” was conducted.
However, if a defendant discards an item in response to a police officer’s illegal attempt to stop them, the object may be suppressible under the theory of forced abandonment. Forced abandonment is a legal term used to describe a situation where a defendant discards evidence in response to illegal police activity, often during a police foot pursuit. The idea behind the doctrine is that police officers “seize” a defendant when they initiate the stop. If officers lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion at that point, the evidence is suppressible—regardless of whether the defendant keeps it on them or tosses it away.