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Split court reverses weapon conviction over illegal police stop

Police traffic stop was illegal

In a split decision, a state appeals court has reversed a weapon conviction because of an illegal police traffic stop.

Defendant Quentin Suttles pleaded guilty in state Supreme Court in Erie County before Justice M. William Boller in June 2021 to second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

In a 4-1 decision released Friday, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department, reversed the conviction, granted a defense motion to suppress physical evidence, and dismissed the indictment.

Suttles’ appellate attorney, Jonathan Rosenberg, argued that Boller should have suppressed the physical evidence found in the vehicle in which Suttles was a passenger.

“We agree. Specifically, defendant contends that the stop of the vehicle was unlawful because the evidence before the suppression court is insufficient to establish that the two police officers who conducted the stop had probable cause to believe that the driver of the vehicle had committed a traffic violation,” the court wrote.

At the suppression hearing, the officers testified that they first saw the vehicle in which Suttles was a passenger when it passed in front of their car, which was stopped on a side street.

One of the officers testified that he visually estimated the speed of the vehicle, which was in a 30-mph zone, to be traveling about 40 miles per hour. The other officer testified that he visually estimated the speed to be about 40 to 45 miles per hour.

“Based on these visual estimates, the officers initiated a vehicle stop. It is undisputed that the officers did not use radar at any point, nor did they pace the vehicle … to confirm their visual estimates before initiating the stop,” the court wrote.

When questioned about their training to estimate a vehicle’s speed, one officer said he did not recall receiving such training, and the other testified that he did not believe such training existed, according to the decision.

One of the officers testified that he had experience visually estimating speed “due to the amount of time he spent on the road as a patrol officer,”

But the officer did not provide “a reasoned explanation of how the time he spent driving on city streets enabled him to acquire the ability to visually estimate speed,” the court wrote.

“The People failed to establish the officers’ training and qualifications to support their visual estimates of the speed of the vehicle in which defendant was a passenger,” the court wrote.

Therefore, the prosecution failed to meet the burden of showing the legality of the police stopping the vehicle.

“We conclude that the court erred in refusing to suppress the physical evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop. Because our determination results in the suppression of all evidence supporting the crime charged, the indictment must be dismissed,” the court wrote.

Justice John M. Curran dissented and voted to affirm the conviction.

“I conclude that Supreme Court properly refused to suppress physical evidence inasmuch as the weight of the evidence at the suppression hearing supports the court’s determination that the police had probable cause to stop the vehicle in which defendant was a passenger and which they observed traveling at an excessive rate of speed,” he wrote.

“Ultimately, the court’s determination that the two testifying police officers credibly testified to observing the vehicle travel in excess of the posted speed limit is entitled to great deference, and I perceive no reason to disturb that credibility determination,” Curran wrote.

“The suppression court was in the best position to observe the credibility of the testifying officers, who essentially cross-corroborated each other’s testimony about the speed of the vehicle. Further supporting the court’s credibility determinations, and corroborating the testimony of the officers,” Curran wrote.

“I conclude that the court’s determination is supported by the weight of the credible evidence in the record, and I would  therefore affirm,” Curran wrote.

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