From Tip to Arrest: An Overview of Your Rights When Police Stop You

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

State v. Wright is an appeal of a denial of a motion to suppress evidence. This case touches on several important issues in criminal law including, de facto arrest, reasonable articulable suspicion v. probable cause, plain view doctrine, and exigent circumstances. The basic facts of the case are that a detective was conducting surveillance operations in a known drug distribution area. The detective received a tip from a “reliable” confidential informant that the defendant was delivering drugs from a “gray or silver Hyundai” and provided a license plate number. The detective ultimately found the vehicle parked with headlights on. Officers approached the vehicle with their weapons drawn and allegedly observed a scale sitting on the console of the vehicle with suspected cocaine on top. The defendant and driver were ordered out of the vehicle. The defendant was first arrested and then the driver’s purse was observed to contain a lot of money and a bag of suspected cocaine was also observed. The trial judge ruled that there was an articulable suspicion of criminal activity and that the officers’ actions were not “unnecessarily intrusive or intimidating.” On appeal the defendant raised four issues:

  1. the informant’s tip was vague
  2. there were no exigent circumstances because the police were in control of the situation
  3. there was no plain view of the evidence seized
  4. there was no reason to believe that preparations for a drug sale were under way

There are three categories of police interactions with individuals: 1) field inquiry (e.g. you are walking around downtown with a red Dixie cup and an officer asks you what is in the cup but does not stop you from going about your way); 2) an investigatory stop (also called a Terry stop, an example of this would be when an officer pulls someone over because they appear to be driving drunk); 3) an arrest.

During an investigative stop a police officer must have an articulable suspicion of criminal activity. This means that the officer must be able to explain why he suspected a defendant was engaged or preparing to engage in a crime and this explanation must make sense to a reasonable person. In order to make an arrest however there is a higher standard of probable cause. An investigative stop often becomes a “de facto arrest” if the investigation becomes intrusive and the defendant is not able to leave (even if he has not been formally arrested). In order for a detention, seizure of persons, or “de facto arrest” to occur legally, there must be a reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify the detention which is viewed within the scope of the totality of the circumstances. After a stop or arrest is conducted evidence is often seized but if there is no warrant the State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a warrantless search or seizure falls into an exception category (such as plain view).

In this particular case there were problems from the moment the police received the tip. This tip was very general and vague. While it did specify a license plate number and an individual, it did not provide any basis for why the informant suspected criminal activity would occur. Simply being present in a known drug-distribution area is not on its own enough to provide reasonable suspicion.

State v. Birkenmeier provides an example of an adequate tip. In that case the informant provided an exact time when an individual would be leaving their home with a laundry bag and driving away in a particular car to engage in criminal activity. The difference in specificity between that tip and the tip in Wright is apparent. So, because the police were responding to an overly vague tip they were not lawfully in the viewing area when they noticed the evidence inside the vehicle. In fact, for police to meet the “plain view” doctrine three requirements must be shown:

  1. police must lawfully be in the viewing area
  2. the evidence must be discovered inadvertently (in other words the police cannot be looking for specific evidence)
  3. it must be immediately apparent to the police that the items in plain view are evidence of a crime (e.g. baggies full of white powder may meet this requirement, but a box of small Ziploc baggies without any residue probably would not)

In the present case being discussed the police stopped the defendant based on a vague tip that could not be corroborated, there was no way to reasonably suspect criminal activity, they were not legally in the viewing area to observe the evidence in plain view, and there was no exigency after the defendant and co-defendant were arrested to seize the evidence without first obtaining a judge-issued warrant. As a result, on appeal the judge held that suppression of the evidence was required as the “‘fruit’ of an unlawful seizure.”

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