A state appeals court has reversed gun and drug convictions because they were based on evidence obtained in an illegal search and seizure.
Defendant Charles Tubbins pleaded guilty in May 2019 before state Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller, in Erie County, to second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.
In a recent decision the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department, vacated the pleas and granted a defense motion to suppress physical evidence and statements made by Tubbins.
According to the decision, two police officers saw three individuals at a picnic with open bottles and containers outside of a vacant house known as a location for criminal activity. A fourth person was smoking marihuana nearby.
Officers approached the picnic table, where Tubbins was sitting with a cup. He jumped up and tried to run away, but one of the officers tackled him and he was handcuffed.
Tubbins was arrested for violation of the open container ordinance and for obstructing governmental administration. Subsequently, police found a gun and a bag of cocaine on him.
Boller ruled that police had probable cause to issue Tubbins a citation and probable cause to stop and arrest him for obstructing governmental administration. He ruled that the search of Tubbins was lawful.
The Fourth Department acknowledged that, based on their observations of Tubbins and the others at a picnic table with open bottles and containers of alcohol, the officers had at least “an objective credible reason justifying their approach of the group to request information.”
“The central question on appeal is therefore whether the officers had probable cause to arrest defendant for obstructing governmental administration on the ground that defendant interfered with the officers’ ability to issue citations for a trespass violation and a violation of the open container ordinance when, immediately following the officers’ approach and inquiry, defendant jumped up from the picnic table and began to run away,” the Fourth Department wrote.
“We agree with defendant, and the People do not dispute, that the officers did not have probable cause to arrest him for obstructing governmental administration,” the court wrote.
A person is guilty of obstructing governmental administration when he “intentionally obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from performing an official function, by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act,” the court wrote.
Boller ruled that the officers had probable cause to believe that Tubbins intentionally attempted to prevent them from performing the official function of issuing citations for trespass and violation of the open container ordinance.
But even though the officers testified that they were planning to issue citations as they approached the picnic table, there was no evidence that, when Tubbins jumped up from the table and tried to run away, the officers were in the process of issuing the citations, or that they had given any order for Tubbins to stay in place, the Fourth Department wrote.
“The officers thus had no reasonable basis to believe that defendant had the requisite intent. … Consequently, as defendant contends, and the People correctly concede, we conclude that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest defendant for obstructing governmental administration,” the court ruled.
“Inasmuch as the officers lacked probable cause to arrest defendant for obstructing governmental administration, we conclude that the court erred in refusing to suppress the physical evidence and defendant’s statements to the police as the fruits of an unlawful arrest and that defendant’s guilty plea must be vacated,” the panel wrote.
“Moreover, because such a determination results in suppression of all evidence supporting the crimes charged, the indictment must be dismissed,” the Fourth Department ruled.
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