Investigation of a Robbery Under the Inevitable Discovery Rule That Led to An Officer Finding a Wad of Cash in a Vehicle
Appellate Docket No.: A-539-19
Decided March 24, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey upheld an investigation of a robbery under the inevitable discovery rule that led to an officer finding a wad of cash in a vehicle containing three individuals after receiving a description of the assailants from the gas station attendant.
In State v. Nunez-Hernandez, Officer Donald Dayon responded to an alarm from the gas station on St. Georges Avenue. On arriving, he encountered Officer Douglas Botti, who was speaking with Ravinder Singh, a gas station attendant. Singh advised that he had just been held up at knifepoint by two men. He described one of the perpetrators as tall, “fat,” and white or light-skinned, and the other as a short, thin black man. Both were wearing hooded sweatshirts, one dark and one of a lighter color. According to Singh, the two perpetrators ran off on foot in a westerly direction on Inman Avenue, which intersects with St. Georges Avenue. Officer Dayon drove off in that direction, using his spotlight to illuminate the surroundings. He soon encountered a silver Honda parked on Inman Avenue facing east toward the gas station on St. Georges Avenue.
Officer Dayon observed three men inside the vehicle. The backseat passenger, later identified as Jose Mena, appeared to be a large male3 wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. The driver, later established to be defendant, was a thin, light-skinned male also wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt. The front-seat passenger, later determined to be Mario Cabrera-Pena, was a dark-skinned male wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt; he was described by Officer Dayon as being thinner than the backseat passenger.
According to Officer Dayon, the three men stared at him “intently, like very nervously” as he drove past, and that each man swiveled his head to watch as he made a U-turn and pulled up behind the Honda. Dayon was interested in investigating these men further with regard to the gas station hold-up because of “the demeanor of the way they were looking at [him] and the fact that [there were] three males with . . . hoodies on, a larger male, a thinner male in the vehicle.” After pulling up behind the Honda, Officer Dayon activated the overhead lights on his patrol car and radioed his location and the Honda’s license plate number to other officers. He remained in his patrol car until other officers arrived. While waiting, Officer Dayon observed the three defendants in the Honda and described their movements as moving around back and forth and one of the passengers taking off their clothes.
Officers asked the occupants to exit the vehicle. As they were doing so, the officer moved a pair of sweat pants in the vehicle and found a wad of cash. Defendant and the others were charged with first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1, second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2, and other offenses. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in the vehicle for failing to have a reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop and performing a warrantless search exceeding the protective sweep.
The Court found the officer has reasonable suspicion to conduct a search based on the description received from the gas station attendant, that the vehicle was the only one in the area, there were three individuals, and the actions of those individuals. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the officer was warranted to conduct a traffic stop and engage in an investigation. As far as the wad of cash is concerned, the Court found that even if the officer performed an unlawful search outside of a protective sweep, the Court denied the motion to suppress based on the inevitable discovery rule, providing that the officers would have found the evidence through legal means but for the unlawful search. The defendant appealed the denial and the Appellate Division affirmed on the same grounds.
This case is important to understand there are three types of interactions with law enforcement, each involving different constitutional implications depending on the event’s impact on an individual’s freedom to leave the scene. First, a “field inquiry is essentially a voluntary encounter between the police and a member of the public in which the police ask questions and do not compel an individual to answer.” State v. Rosario, 229 N.J. 263, 271 (2017). The individual is free to leave, therefore field inquiries do not require a well-grounded suspicion of criminal activity before commencement. Id. at 271-72; see also Elders, 192 N.J. at 246. Second, an investigatory stop or detention, sometimes referred to as a Terry stop, involves a temporary seizure that restricts a person’s movement. A Terry stop implicates a constitutional requirement that there be “‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,’ give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Elders, 192 N.J. at 247 (quoting State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117, 126 (2002)); see also Rosario, 229 N.J. at 272. Third, an arrest requires “probable cause and generally [are] supported by an arrest warrant or by demonstration of grounds that would have justified one.” Rosario, 229 N.J. at 272. Here, there was a search incident to arrest, an exception to the warrant requirement.
There was also the inevitable discovery rule which provides the admission of illegally-obtained evidence if the State can prove that the evidence would have been discovered had the illegality not occurred by showing: (1) proper, normal and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case; (2) under all of the surrounding relevant circumstances the pursuit of those procedures would have inevitably resulted in the discovery of the evidence; and (3) the discovery of the evidence through the use of such procedures would have occurred wholly independently of the discovery of such evidence by unlawful means.
If you or someone you know have been charged with any indictable offense or disorderly persons involving a search and/or questioning of police, or you have questions regarding probable cause and warrantless searches, contact the experienced attorney at Hark & Hark to ensure you are adequately defended, otherwise you could have negative impacts on your case like the defendant above.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.
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