New York Court Throws Out “all persons present” search warrants

New York’s highest court ruled on Thursday that police departments cannot use general warrants that apply to a specific location to search every person they find there unless there is probable cause to believe that a particular person is involved in criminal activity.

While the decision, which was unanimous, arose from a case in Syracuse, the ruling could have broad implications because “all-persons-present” warrants are so often used by the police.

In its 7-to-0 ruling, the New York Court of Appeals said that an all-persons-present warrant used by the police in Syracuse during a drug raid at an apartment in 2006 did not give them enough evidence to strip-search a man who was in the home. The court ordered the dismissal of drug possession charges that the man, Robert Mothersell, had been facing.

The court also said that even if the warrant did give the police reason to search Mr. Mothersell, a strip-search was so intrusive that it violated his rights under the federal and state constitutions. The police said they found a bag of cocaine between Mr. Mothersell’s buttocks.

The decision could be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which could rule on the federal issues, but not on the “state constitutional protections,” said Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of the Appeals.

James P. Maxwell, the chief assistant district attorney for Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, said an appeal was unlikely because the state goes further than the federal government in offering protections against such searches.

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