Must a Criminal Court Complaint for NY PL 220.03 Contain a Drug Test or Proof of the Officer’s Training and Experience

There are multiple standards throughout the different levels, stages and proceedings in a criminal case. For example, probable cause for an arrest in New York is far less than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt needed by the prosecution to secure a conviction at trial. Since the relatively recent (in terms of the history of the New York Penal Law and New York Criminal Procedure Law) acceptance that a laboratory analysis or field test is not needed at the initial pleading stage to establish a sufficient complaint in a criminal court for drug possession, there have been many legal challenges by those defendants charged with Seventh Degree Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance.

New York Penal Law 220.03 makes it a crime to knowingly possess a controlled substance. Sounds fairly straight forward, but when you see your judge at our arraignment, what must the police officer alleged to support his position? Training and experience in identifying drugs? The packaging of the controlled substance? What about if the police officer hits up the internet and lands on a page such as Drugs.Com? Can law enforcement merely reference an online resource in concluding that you possess a particular drug without some sort of chemical test or an elaboration of his or her experience in identifying drugs? Read below for the answer.

In People v. Spardlin, NY Slip Op. 27173 (Ithaca City Court 2017), the police arrested and charged the defendant with NY PL 220.03, Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree. In pertinent part, the complaint stated that the defendant possessed nine white pills marked with “M 36”. After referring to Drugs.Com, the officer identified the drugs as a controlled substance in violation of PL 220.03. Ultimately, upon a motion to dismiss, the defendant argued that the officer’s basis of identifying the unlawful drug was unreliable. Without relying on training or experience, a lab or a field test, asserting the drug was in fact a particular drug was merely a conclusion.

In ultimately denying the motion to dismiss, the court first (actually it was not first, but helpful in this analysis) took judicial notice as to the reliability of Drugs.Com. Then, the judge turned to the wording in the complaint. There, the court noted that the officer described the pill’s color as well as the wording and text imprinted upon them. Looking to the logic in People v. Kalin, 12 NY3d 225 (2009), the judge determined that the officer described the drug adequately, relied not on his training or experience, but an accepted resource to identify drugs, and all of this was based on the officer’s own observations. Therefore, the complaint was legally sufficient.

There are very few decisions where Drugs.Com, or similar website, was used as a resource to establish legal sufficiency in a complaint. It is likely at some point a higher court will rule on this issue. Outside of Ithaca, New York, this decision is by all means a worthy one, but not controlling. However, be warned. The fairly liberal interpretation courts utilize when reviewing legal or facial insufficiency may be getting much more broad in the very near future. If nothing else, a lab test, field test, or even recitation of an officer’s training and experience, may not be as critical as it was in past arrests and criminal cases.

To learn about the ever changing legal, procedural and defenses involving drug, controlled substance and narcotics crime, please review this blog and CrottySaland.Com.

The New York criminal lawyers and former Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys at Crotty Saland PC represent clients investigated for and charged with all controlled substance crimes found in Article 220 of the New York Penal Law.

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