State Court of Appeals rules police cannot conduct ‘destructive' searches

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:01

    ALBANY — When Felix Gomez was pulled over four years ago he allowed police to search his car, but he didn’t think they should have used a crowbar. On Oct. 25 the state’s highest court agreed. In a 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals said police do not have the legal right to conduct “destructive” searches, even after a subject gives his consent to a general police inspection. The decision reversed an appellate court’s finding that Felix Gomez’s consent to a search of his car allowed authorities to pry part of his vehicle apart. In establishing new law, the court said consent to a search by itself cannot justify a search that “impairs the structural integrity of a vehicle or that results in the vehicle being returned in a materially different manner than it was found.” Once a search exceeds the scope of a voluntary consent, specific permission is needed without probable cause for police to inflict damage during a search, the majority said. Gomez, 30, serving a seven years to life sentence, remains in prison. The Court of Appeals returned his case to the Appellate Division to consider whether police had probable cause to search the car, a separate legal question the lower court did not address in its decision. On Sept. 27, 2001, New York City police officers pulled Gomez over for driving a car with dark-tinted windows. Sgt. William Planeta looked beneath the car and saw fresh undercoating on the gas tank. Suspecting the car might have a hidden compartment for drugs, Planeta asked for permission to search the car. Gomez gave his consent. During the search Planeta removed the Honda’s rear seat and then pulled up the floor’s carpeting when he determined it wasn’t the car’s original flooring. Finding a cut in the floor panel, Planeta used a pocket knife to pry it open further. Seeing a plastic bag, he then used a crowbar to expose a hidden compartment holding more than 1-1/2 pounds of cocaine. An appellate court upheld Gomez’s conviction and his prison sentence of seven years to life, concluding the officer did not exceed the scope of Gomez’s consent because Gomez failed to place any limitations on the search, and did not object to the search as it was conducted. Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, writing for the majority, disagreed with that lower-court ruling. “A reasonable person would not have understood the officer’s request to search to include prying open a hole in the floorboard and gas tank with a crowbar,” Ciparick wrote. “Here the officer clearly crossed the line when he took this action without first obtaining defendant’s specific consent.” In her dissenting opinion, Judge Susan Phillips Read said the court created a new standard for searches that is vague and may be unwieldy for police officers. “Critically, we live in an age when we should be most reluctant to create hard-to-apply rules that hamstring police officers who reasonably suspect that a vehicle contains a hidden compartment — an alteration with few, if any, innocent purposes — which might conceal far more lethal cargo than narcotics.” Sherry Hunter, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, declined comment on the ruling.