The Second Department, reversing Supreme Court, determined defendant’s motion to suppress the wallet seized in the search of his person should have been granted. The related robbery convictions were reversed and a new trial on those counts was ordered. Defendant fled from the scene of the mugging and was properly detained by the police. However, once the pat-down search revealed defendant did not have a weapon, the police should not have seized the (stolen) wallet from defendant’s pocket and searched it. The “constitutional” error was not harmless because, under the facts, the error could have influenced the factfinder:
… [E]ven assuming that the officers were justified in performing a protective frisk … , there was no justification for searching the defendant’s pants pocket, reaching into it, and removing the wallet. In the course of conducting a protective pat-down based upon reasonable suspicion, “[o]nce an officer has concluded that no weapon is present, the search is over and there is no authority for further intrusion” … . There was no evidence presented at the suppression hearing that, during his frisk of the defendant, Nelson felt anything in the defendant’s pocket that seemed to be a weapon or that could have posed a danger to the officers at the scene. Indeed, Nelson did not testify at the hearing. Accordingly, there was no lawful basis for removing the wallet from the defendant’s pocket … , and that act violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures … . The officers committed an additional constitutional violation when, after retrieving the wallet from the defendant’s pocket, they opened it and conducted a warrantless search of its contents … . * * *
… [U]nder the constitutional standard, an error cannot be harmless if there is a reasonable possibility that it may have been a contributing factor that influenced the factfinder’s determination … . People v Lewis, 2022 NY Slip Op 04920, Second Dept 8-10-22
Practice Point: Although defendant was properly detained in a street stop, once the pat-down search revealed defendant did not have a weapon the police were not justified in seizing the stolen wallet from defendant’s pocket and then searching it.
Practice Point: There are two sets of harmless-error criteria, one for nonconstitutional error and one for constitutional error. Under the constitutional-error criteria, the error in this case was not harmless and a new trial was ordered.