Fruits of warrantless arrest lead panel to vote for new trial

All evidence resulting from a warrantless arrest has been thrown out and a new trial ordered for a Brooklyn criminal defendant. The Appellate Division, 2nd Department has ruled that the police and lower court erred in the prosecution of a man whose rights were violated when he was arrested sans a warrant.

A Brooklyn jury found Derrick Riffas guilty of second degree murder after a 2009 trial in Brooklyn’s criminal court. To secure his arrest, police came to Riffas’ home at 6:50 a.m. Riffas came to the door partially clothed and apparently “half asleep,” the court noted. He opened the door halfway, and upon realizing that it was the police, he attempted to close the door but was prevented by a detective’s arm intentionally jamming the door.  

Riffas did not voluntarily cross the threshold of his apartment to exit, but was pulled into the outside hallway by the police and subsequently arrested. Court records show that police officers pushed Riffas’ door in, came into his home and physically removed him.

During questioning, Riffas allegedly made incriminating statements to the police and was identified by a witness. At trial, Riffas and his attorney argued that the initial arrest was invalid because it violated Riffas’ Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful seizure. The lower court denied Riffas’ motions and upheld the arrest.

Riffas’ attorneys appealed, arguing that the arrest, all evidence received after the arrest and the resulting conviction should be deemed invalid and overturned. Hearing the arguments of both the prosecution and the Riffas, a panel of Appellate Division, 2nd Department judges agreed with the defendant.

Federal case law, stemming from a challenge to a prior New York state statute, holds that the threshold of a person’s home cannot be crossed without a valid warrant. Barring exigent circumstances, such as the likelihood that evidence will be destroyed, the suspect must actually cross over the threshold himself if the police are without a warrant.  In Riffas’ case, the police did in fact traverse the threshold of his home without a warrant in hand.

“I thought that it was a blatant violation of Payton v. New York,” Pamela Hayes, Riffas’ attorney, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in an exclusive interview. “[The police] did not have a warrant. They knew they could not go into someone’s home without a warrant and no exigent circumstances. It is clear black-letter law that you need a warrant,” Hayes said.

The four-judge panel ruled that because “the police officers crossed the threshold into the defendant's apartment, pulled him into the hallway, and arrested him without a warrant, [his] Fourth Amendment rights were violated.”  

During oral arguments, Hayes was given an indication as to where the panel would land. “One of the judges said that he was troubled by the fact that there was no warrant,” she recalled. “You cannot just drag someone out of their home.”

Because the initial arrest was invalidated, all evidence that was discovered as a result of the arrest was deemed tainted “fruit of the unlawful arrest.” The panel suppressed the identification and statements made by Riffas during police interrogation, reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. But it is unclear as to whether or not the Brooklyn DA’s Office will continue to prosecute Riffas, bring an appeal or adhere to the Appellate Division’s ruling.  

“We are reviewing the decision,” a spokesperson for the DA’s office told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Puzzled by the DA’s response, Hayes asked “But where is the prosecution’s case? The identification and all evidence after the arrest, and the arrest itself, was thrown out and deemed inadmissible.”

As the DA’s Office decides how to further proceed, Riffas will be brought back to Brooklyn from upstate New York, where he is currently being held. “We will be asking for bail because my client was assaulted by corrections officers,” Hayes said, speaking about a settled federal lawsuit filed by Riffas.

“There were strange things happening in this case,” Hayes noted. “And there are a lot of unresolved issues.”