Is an Exchange of Money in A High Crime Area Enough for Probable Cause, Leading to Arrest and A Search and Seizure of Heroin?

State v. Rivas

Appellate Docket No.: A-5409-17T1

Decided December 2, 2020

Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey whether a hand to hand exchange of money in a high crime area was enough for probable cause leading to arrest and a search and seizure of heroin.

In State v. Rivas, on August 20, 2015, the Plainfield Police Division (Division) received a tip that a “[h]ispanic male and white female were distributing heroin” from a McDonald’s in Plainfield. A few days later, the North Plainfield Police Department notified the Division that one of their sources identified Melissa McPartland (McPartland) as the white female. This source also provided the phone number that McPartland purportedly used to conduct narcotic transactions.

Shortly thereafter, Detective Joseph Mulligan of the Division texted the phone number and arranged an undercover purchase for “ten folds of heroin.” In preparation, the Division equipped Detective Metz with a “wireless (audio) transmitter” so other detectives could monitor the transaction.

Once there, Detective Metz received a phone call from a different number. The caller, who had a female voice, instructed Detective Metz to pick her up.  She got in the passenger side, showed him heroin folds, and told the Detective she knew where to get better heroin. The female, McPartland, stated that Ace lived on Arlington Avenue in Newark and that defendant was going to assist in the transaction. McPartland also stated that Ace drove a red Pontiac.

Detective Metz was aware from his “dozens” of investigations that Arlington Avenue was a high crime area where narcotics were sold. He also believed that Ace was Malik Canty (Canty) based on the identifying information provided to him by McPartland. In this regard, Detective Metz stated that he was familiar with Canty through previous investigations and knew that he drove a red Pontiac, lived on Arlington Avenue, that his street name was “Ace,” and that he sold heroin.

The Detective noticed defendant approach. The Detective handed defendant money. Defendant stepped away called Canty and they proceeded to a house located on Arlington Avenue.  There, another back up officer on location observed defendant hand what he believed to be currency to Canty.  Canty took the money and appeared to count it and put it in his pocket.  Another officer monitored the conversations via the audio transmitter.

When defendant reentered the car he was arrested and searched, finding twenty-seven glassine envelopes of heroin. Defendant filed a motion to suppress on the basis that officers lacked probably cause for his arrest.  The Trial Court found that the evidence of a hand to hand transaction of cash in a high crime area was enough for officers, based on their experience, to have probable cause and search defendant to find the heroin.

Defendant appealed and the Appellate Division found that the police had a well grounded suspicion that defendant committed a crime – probable cause – based on the officer’s reasonable observation.  They affirmed on those grounds.

This case is important to understand that an officer’s observations and testimony are usually critical in criminal matters.  For arrests, searches and seizures, officers are trained and have experience in a variety of areas.  This training and experience is recognized by the courts and is often used to bolster officer testimony. For instance, in the above case, if a normal individual saw a hand to hand transaction with what they believed to be money, it may not be enough to convict the defendant. However, the officers who are trained and have experienced hand to hand transactions in known drug areas are often drug deals are used by the State to find probable cause for an arrest.  In order to properly defend against such accusations, it is important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney trained in questioning police officers and exposing weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case.

At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case involving motions to suppress. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing criminal charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties.

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Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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