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Tolentino v. New York

Concerning Suppression of Evidence Accessed After an Illegal Police Search


On January 1, 2005, the New York state police stopped Jose Tolentino on a public road, allegedly for playing music too loudly. The police obtained his name and then searched the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) computer database. After the search, the police learned that Mr. Tolentino was driving with a suspended license. Mr. Tolentino was convicted of unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. At trial, he motioned to suppress the evidence of his suspended license. After appealing all the way up through the New York state judicial system, Mr. Tolentino petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction, arguing that the evidence was discovered after an illegal search. He argues that the stop was baseless, as his driving complied with all traffic laws, including any applicable to the volume of his music. The Supreme Court decided to hear his case on November 15, 2010, but then dismissed the case on March 29, 2011 as improvidently granted.

Top News

  • Supreme Court To Hear Arguments in ID Search Case: Oral argument for the Supreme Court case Tolentino v. New York will take place on Monday, March 21, 2011. The case concerns an unlawful police stop. Tolentino asserts that that police had no basis for pulling his car over and then running his license. EPIC has filed a "friend of the court" brief arguing that the Constitution protects individuals from suspicionless searches of government databases. For more information, see EPIC: Tolentino v. NY. (Mar. 18, 2011)
  • Jury Vindicates Right to Fly Without Producing Identification: A New Mexico jury exonerated civil rights activist Phil Mocek for refusing to show his identification to the TSA before boarding a plane and for filming TSA agents. Mocek has published footage of the incident, stemming from his attempt to board a flight in Albuquerque in 2009. Agents instructed Mocek to put down his camera. When he refused, insisting that TSA rules and regulations do not prohibit filming in publicly-accessible areas of the airport, agents raised their voices and accused him of "causing a disturbance." Police officers arrived on scene and informed Mocek that he was under criminal investigation for "disturbing the peace," demanding that he produce identification. Mocek carried no identification and was brought up on four separate charges relating to the incident. The jury in the case took an hour to deliberate and returned with a verdict of NOT GUILTY on all charges. EPIC is currently suing to strike down the TSA's body scanner checkpoint program and recently submitted a "Friend of the Court" brief urging the Supreme Court to limit police access to identity documents. For more information, see EPIC: EPIC v. DHS and EPIC: Tolentino v. New York. (Jan. 24, 2011)
  • EPIC Urges Supreme Court to Limit Police Access to Identity Documents: EPIC filed an amicus brief in Tolentino v. New York, a Supreme Court case concerning police access to government databases, enabled by patrol cars with Mobile Device Terminals. EPIC urged the Court to uphold Fourth Amendment protections for the Petitioner, who asserted that police had no basis for pulling him over and running his license. EPIC's brief states that "the risk is real that car stops will increasingly become pretextual because of the opportunity to search a government database for data unrelated to the reason that gave rise to the original stop." EPIC has filed briefs in related cases, including Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District, in which the Supreme Court upheld, by a 5-4 margin, a state identification law because the individual did not have to produce his drivers license. In that case, Justice Stevens wrote "a name can provide the key to a broad array of information about the person, particularly in the hands of a police officer with access to a range of law enforcement databases." For more information, see EPIC: Tolentino v. NY, EPIC: Herring v. US, and EPIC: Drivers Privacy Protection Act. (Jan. 18, 2011)

Question Presented

Whether the Fourth Amendment requires a court to suppress evidence of a driver's suspended license when the police obtained that evidence after an illegal search.

Procedural History

Mr. Tolentino motioned in trial court to suppress his driving record and any statements made after the arrest. Mr. Tolentino insisted that the police unlawfully stopped his car and illegally obtained his driving record from DMV. He argued further that the DMV records should be excluded because they were obtained as the result of a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The right to exclude evidence is designed to keep police from conducting illegal stops. The trial court denied the motion, and Mr. Tolentino pleaded guilty, receiving a sentence of five years' probation.

Mr. Tolentino appealed, requesting a separate, lower court hearing about the legality of the police stop and his right to suppress evidence discovered during the stop. The New York Appellate Division heard Mr. Tolentino's appeal and rejected it. The Court held that "[a]n individual does not possess a legitimate expectation of privacy in files maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles and such records do not constitute evidence which is subject to suppression."

Mr. Tolentino then brought his appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. The Court of Appeals issued a divided opinion. The majority rejected the appeal, holding that the identity of a defendant is never suppressible evidence, no matter the legality of the stop, search, and/or arrest police used to obtain it. It also noted that New York state case law established that public records already in the state's possession could not later be suppressed if accessed as the result of an illegal stop. The majority concluded by considering the policy implications of its decision, reasoning that deterring police from illegal stops was a less pressing priority in this case, "since permitting defendants to hide their identity would undermine the administration of the criminal justice system and essentially allow suppression of the court’s jurisdiction.”

The dissent disagreed with the majority's holding and its rationale, stating that its unprecedented approach would exclude all identity-related evidence from traditional Fourth Amendment protections, and adding “[w]hat matters is the legality of the police conduct, not the type of evidence obtained.” Key to the dissent's argument was that the majority had misinterpreted the scope of INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984). Following opinions in the Fourth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits, the dissent reasoned that the Lopez-Mendoza precedent should determine only “the court’s personal jurisdiction . . . not admissibility of identity evidence.”

Mr. Tolentino filed his petition for Supreme Court review on June 23, 2010. On November 15, 2010, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, but then dismissed the case in March 2011 without issuing an opinion on the merits.

EPIC's Interest in Tolentino

EPIC has a long history filing amicus briefs in numerous relevant Supreme Court cases to protect individual privacy against compelled disclosure of identity.

In Reno v. Condon, 528 U.S. 141 (2000), EPIC's amicus brief argued that the 1994 Drivers Privacy Protection Act ("DPPA") was a constitutional exercise of Congressional authority and did not violate the Tenth Amendment. In that case, the Supreme Court considered whether the DPPA, which prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information and motor vehicle records by public agencies and private persons, was an unconstitutional breach of federalism principles. EPIC argued that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their DMV records and a constitutional interest in limiting the collection and use of personal information obtained by state agencies. The Court held that the Act appropriately restricts States from disclosing a driver’s personal information without the driver’s consent.

In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004), EPIC argued that the Supreme Court should strike down a Nevada statute which gave state police authority to compel the disclosure of an individual's name prior to a decision to arrest the individual. In that case, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the arrest and prosecution of Larry Dudley Hiibel, whose crime was refusing to identify himself when a police officer asked him to do so, violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution. The Court found that the Nevada law was constitutional, noting that it did not require individuals to provide any government documents, such as a driver's license, and that Hiibel had no reasonable belief that providing his name would implicate him in a crime.

Then, in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008), EPIC urged the Supreme Court to invalidate an Indiana statute that required individuals to produce government-issued identification documents before voting. In that case, the Court had to consider whether the burden to Indiana voters was offset by the state's interest in reducing voter fraud. EPIC argued that the law would implement a technically flawed voting system called REAL ID, which threatened to disenfranchise voters and increase the risk of identity theft. The majority of the Court found that the law was constitutional, holding that the burden was minimal and justified. Justice Souter wrote in dissent, "this statute imposes a disproportionate burden upon those without" government-issued photo IDs.

In Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135 (2009), EPIC argued that the dramatic rise of law enforcement databases riddled with inaccuracies and incomplete information puts individuals at risk and jeopardizes criminal investigations. In that case, the Supreme Court considered the Constitutionality of a police search premised on erroneous information from an inaccurate law enforcement database. EPIC urged the Court to suppress trial evidence produced from searches which rely on inaccurate databases. The Court held that the Fourth Amendment only requires the suppression of evidence when doing so would meaningfully deter similar behavior in the future, and when police conduct was sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system. The majority of the Court found that neither of these conditions was satisfied in Herring. Justice Ginsburg, writing for four of the Justices in dissent, said that "negligent recordkeeping errors by law enforcement threaten individual liberty, are susceptible to deterrence by the exclusionary rule, and cannot be remedied effectively through other means."

Legal Documents

Supreme Court

Certiorari-Stage Documents (PDFs)

New York Court of Appeals


Related EPIC Amicus Briefs

Web Resources

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