New York Court of Appeals Invalidates Warrant Which Authorized Search of All Persons Present at the Time of its Execution

In People v. Mothersell, the Court of Appeals addressed the legality of a warrant which authorized the search of all persons present at the time of its execution.  In reversing the lower courts and ordering the indictment dismissed, the Court reiterated that an all-persons-present warrant should only issue after a showing of significant justification.

While The Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution as made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and Article I, Section 12 of our New York State Constitution requires that warrants “particularly describ[e] . . . the persons . . . to be seized,” New York States CPL 690.15 (2) states that “[a] search warrant which directs a search of a designated or described place, premises or vehicle, may also direct a search of any person present thereat or therein[.]”

In People v Nieves, 36 NY2d 396 (1975), the Court reasoned that there could be circumstances in which a showing of probable cause to search a place would also afford probable cause to infer that everyone present at the place had upon their persons the items specified in the warrant, and thus, that [CPL 690.15] was capable of application without constitutional offense.  However, the Court described the “severely limited” circumstances which would justify such a warrant, explaining that “[t]he facts made known to the Magistrate and the reasonable inferences to which they give rise, must create a substantial probability that the authorized invasions of privacy will be justified by discovery of the items sought from all persons present when the warrant is executed. If this probability is not present, then each person subject to search must be identified in the warrant and supporting papers by name or sufficient personal description”

But in Mothersell the Court found that no such showing had been made, in the warrant application citing “boilerplate allegations” and a statement by the deponent that, based on her past experience, it is “not uncommon that persons found in the subject residence could reasonably be expected to conceal cocaine.”

Turning to the general concept of an all-persons-present warrant, the Court did not condemn them entirely.  While the Court did note the “utility” of such a warrant, it cautioned that such utility “may not permissibly arise, as it apparently has in practice, from any relaxation of the requirement of probable cause as to each person targeted for
search or seizure.”