Judge Matthew J. Murphy III
If you happen to be an African American it will come as no surprise to learn that blacks, and particularly young black males, are far more likely to be pulled over by police than white people.
It's a fact of life, though one that is almost never acknowledged by police agencies or in courts of law. That's why Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III showed great wisdom in his recent decision to cut loose two defendants found by police to be in possession of seven pounds of marijuana, 27 oxymorphone pills, and a stack of counterfeit money.
Back on May 9, Shateek L. Payne, 36, of Fillmore Avenue, Buffalo, was driving his Hummer near the intersection of 18th and Niagara streets here. His younger brother, Michael Payne, and Joachim S. Sylvester, 38, of Ontario Avenue, Niagara Falls, were passengers in the vehicle.
Three brothers cruising in the hood in a $40,000 vehicle piqued the interest of city cops, who pulled the Hummer over. A search ensued, and the three men were arrested.
Michael Payne was subsequently murdered in Buffalo and unavailable for trial. Shateek Payne and Sylvester appeared before Murphy to answer the plethora of charges lodged against them.
Essentially, Murphy ruled, the men were guilty of "driving while black."
"No court is ever pleased that guilty men go free because the constable has blundered," Murphy said. "Even the guiltiest of men are entitled to the protection of the laws."
Prosecutors objected, citing the drugs and counterfeit money as evidence that the collar was a good one. But Murphy wasn't buying.
"Hunches cannot retroactively legalize police conduct that was improper," the judge said.
The prosecution tried to rescue the case by presenting three Appellate Division rulings that said passengers in traffic stops lacked legal standing to challenge the legality of searches, but defense attorney Angelo Musitano cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a passenger does have standing to object in certain circumstances.
Murphy made his bones as a prosecutor, rising to the position of district attorney in Niagara County, and serving in that role for 16 years, longer than anyone in county history.
In this case, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have sided with the cops and his former colleagues in the DA's office, since Payne and Sylvester were so obviously guilty.
But even as a prosecutor, Murphy was never one to cut corners in order to obtain a conviction. The law is the law and there's no justice in warrantless searches or rousting people because of the color of their skin or the kind of car they're driving.
In the end, Payne pleaded guilty to running a stop sign and the drugs and counterfeit money remain in police custody. Murphy's righteous but controversial decision will stand as an example of what the criminal justice system should be, but isn't always, about.