The Legal Aid Society Will Litigate Its 37th Case Before the United States Supreme Court

On March 21, 2011, Kristina Schwarz, a staff attorney with the Criminal Appeals Bureau, will argue before the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of petitioner, Jose Tolentino, in Tolentino v. New York, making it the 37th case the Society has litigated before the High Court. Of the 36 cases litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Society won 19.

Mr. Tolentino's case presents the question of whether Department of Motor Vehicles records demonstrating that an individual's driver's license has been suspended are subject to suppression under the 4th Amendment's exclusionary rule as the fruit of an unlawful automobile stop. Early in the evening of January 1, 2005, the police stopped Mr. Tolentino's car as he drove on a Manhattan street. Mr. Tolentino complied with all police requests and the car contained no contraband. Nonetheless, after a check of DMV records revealed that his license had been suspended, he was arrested and taken into custody. He was subsequently convicted of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to probation.

In motion papers filed before the state trial court by his Legal Aid Criminal Defense Practice attorney, Mr. Tolentino asserted that, at the time the police stopped his car, he was complying with all traffic regulations and had done nothing wrong. For purposes of deciding the motion, the trial judge – and subsequently the Appellate Division, First Department and the New York Court of Appeals – accepted these allegations as true. Nonetheless, the New York courts concluded that he was entitled to no relief because, irrespective of the stop's illegality and no matter how egregious the violation of Mr. Tolentino's 4th Amendment rights, the DMV records were not subject to suppression. We argue that this rule, if permitted to stand, would create an incentive for law enforcement to undertake car stops in the absence of any suspicion at all. The Supreme Court is expected to decide the matter by the end of June.