Last updated on: 12/31/2009 | Author:

Peters v. New York

Decided on June 10, 1968; 392 US 40

Police officer arrests burglar in his own apartment building and is sued for not having a warrant

A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (4th Amendment), Due process clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do the broad search powers conferred on New York State police officers under the State’s stop-and-frisk law violate the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure protections?


A. Background:

A police officer was at home in his apartment and heard a noise at the door. Through the peephole he saw two strangers (including appellant Peters) tiptoeing furtively about the hallway.  He called the police and armed himself with his service revolver. He observed the strangers still engaged in suspicious maneuvers and pursued them, believing that they were attempting a burglary. He caught appellant by the collar in the apartment hallway. Appellant said that he had been visiting a friend whom he declined to identify. The officer patted appellant down for weapons and discovered a container with burglar’s tools. Appellant was later charged with possession of the burglary tools as circumstantial evidence showing an intent to use in the commission of a crime.

The trial court denied appellants’ motion to suppress the evidence.  The court found that the officer had necessary reasonable suspicion under New York’s stop-and-frisk statute to justify the stop, question appellant, and to frisk him for a dangerous weapon in the apartment hallway. Appellant pleaded guilty, preserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The intermediate appellate court affirmed, as did the New York Court of Appeals, which held the search justified under the stop and frisk statute. Appellant brought the case to the US Supreme Court.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Robert Stuart Friedman argued the cause and filed a brief for appellant. James J. Duggan argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Leonard Rubenfeld.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Bernard A. Berkman, Melvin L. Wulf, and Alan H. Levine filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

A brief of amicus curiae urging reversal  was filed by Jack Greenberg, James M. Nabrit III, Michael Meltsner, Melvyn Zarr, and Anthony G. Amsterdam for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Louis J. Lefkowitz, pro se, Samuel A. Hirshowitz, First Assistant Attorney General, and Maria L. Marcus and Brenda Soloff, Assistant Attorneys General, filed a brief for the Attorney General of New York, as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.

Mr. Siegel argued the cause for the District Attorney of Kings County, as amicus curiae.

“We think it is equally clear that the search in Peters’ case was wholly reasonable under the Constitution. The Court of Appeals of New York held that the search was made legal by Section 180-a, since Peters was ‘abroad in a public place,’ and since Officer Lasky was reasonably suspicious of his activities and, once he had stopped Peters, reasonably suspected that he was in danger of life or limb, even though he held Peters at gun point. This may be the justification for the search under state law. We think, however, that for purposes of the Fourth Amendment the search was properly incident to a lawful arrest. By the time Officer Lasky caught up with Peters on the stairway between the fourth and fifth floors of the apartment building, he had probable cause to arrest him for attempted burglary. The officer heard strange noises at his door which apparently led him to believe that someone sought to force entry. When he investigated these noises he saw two men, whom he had never seen before in his 12 years in the building, tiptoeing furtively about the hallway. They were still engaged in these maneuvers after he called the police and dressed hurriedly. And when Officer Lasky entered the hallway, the men fled down the stairs. It is difficult to conceive of stronger grounds for an arrest, short of actual eyewitness observation of criminal activity. As the trial court explicitly recognized, deliberately furtive actions and flight at the approach of strangers or law officers are strong indicia of mens rea, [Latin for signs of a guilty mind] and when coupled with specific knowledge on the part of the officer relating the suspect to the evidence of crime, they are proper factors to be considered in the decision to make an arrest.

As we noted in Sibron’s case [Sibron v. New York], a search incident to a lawful arrest may not precede the arrest and serve as part of its justification. It is a question of fact precisely when, in each case, the arrest took place. And while there was some inconclusive discussion in the trial court concerning when Officer Lasky ‘arrested’ Peters, it is clear that the arrest had, for purposes of constitutional justification, already taken place before the search commenced. When the policeman grabbed Peters by the collar, he abruptly ‘seized’ him and curtailed his freedom of movement on the basis of probable cause to believe that he was engaged in criminal activity. At that point he had the authority to search Peters, and the incident search was obviously justified ‘by the need to seize weapons and other things which might be used to assault an officer or effect an escape, as well as by the need to prevent the destruction of evidence of the crime.’ Moreover, it was reasonably limited in scope by these purposes. Officer Lasky did not engage in an unrestrained and thorough-going examination of Peters and his personal effects. He seized him to cut short his flight, and he searched him primarily for weapons. While patting down his outer clothing, Officer Lasky discovered an object in his pocket which might have been used as a weapon. He seized it and discovered it to be a potential instrument of the crime of burglary.

We have concluded that Peters’ conviction fully comports with the commands of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and must be affirmed.”

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Warren, E.  Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart,P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Fortas, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Black, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)

    The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York in an 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.