Release Date: March 29, 2011
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Court declines to rule in Tolentino v. New York

The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will not issue a decision in a New York case regarding a defendant’s claim that his incriminating DMV record, accessed by police during a traffic stop, must be excluded if the stop is determined to be illegal.

The court’s statement that it was a mistake to accept Tolentino v. New York for review, one week after oral argument, leaves in place the New York high court decision that denied the defendant’s claim.  

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case to argue courts should not suppress a driver’s identity and criminal records because doing so would neither vindicate the rights of an unlawfully stopped driver, nor deter police from conducting unlawful traffic stops.

“A decision upholding the defendant’s claim in this case would have expanded the exclusionary rule to suppress information already available to police,” said Foundation Attorney Christine Dowling.  “This would have allowed lawbreakers to escape their criminal records on the flimsiest of legal technicalities,” she added.

The case involved the 2005 traffic stop of Jose Tolentino for excessive noise.  During the stop, New York City police officers checked Tolentino’s DMV record and found that he was driving on a suspended license and had at least ten suspensions.  Prior to his trial, Tolentino sought to have his DMV record suppressed, arguing that the traffic stop was illegal and therefore introduction of his record violated the Fourth Amendment.  The New York courts ruled that, whether or not the traffic stop was unlawful, the government’s own records are not subject to suppression under the exclusionary rule.

Last fall, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case to settle a conflict between the courts.  In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argued that a person’s driving record is already in the government’s possession, and therefore not the fruit of an illegal search.  The Foundation also noted that the limitations on police traffic stops are not intended to protect a driver’s identity, and that suppressing such evidence would not serve the purpose of the exclusionary rule, which is to discourage illegal police searches.

“The Court has preserved the New York court’s decision in this case, which properly held that criminals have no constitutional right to suppression of their record of past offenses,” said Dowling.

CJLF Attorney Christine Dowling is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Foundation’s brief is available at: