Motion To Suppress Evidence Recovered After an Officer Approached Him in the Parking Lot
Docket No. A-0641-21
Decided October 21, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal the denial of his motion to suppress evidence recovered after an officer approached him in the parking lot of Great Oak Park in Oakland.
The facts of this case are as follows: On December 20, 2019, at approximately 3:50 p.m., an officer patrolling the area of Great Oak Park turned onto a driveway that led into a parking lot within the park. There was one vehicle in the lot and snow covering the ground. According to the officer, it was unusual for someone to be parked there in late December since the park was used for hiking and dog walking. The officer then parked his cruiser behind the vehicle.
The vehicle was running and as he approached, the officer saw that the sole occupant of the car, the driver, was talking on his cellphone. The officer approached from the driver’s side where the driver’s side window was rolled down, and the driver mentioned to him to wait while he continued his phone conversation. The officer waited several minutes for the man to conclude his call.
While waiting for the call to end, the officer observed that the driver’s eyes were bloodshot and watery and there was a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from the vehicle. The officer also noticed several alcoholic beverage containers inside the vehicle. After conversing with the driver for some time, the officer issued the defendant a DWI summons.
Defendant subsequently filed a motion to suppress the fruits of the putative stop and search. The officer testified and supplemented his testimony with his dashcam footage which showed him approaching the defendant’s vehicle and interacting with him. Following oral argument, the municipal court judge denied the motion to suppress, finding that the interaction was a valid field inquiry requiring no justification. Defendant then appealed to the Law Division, which heard the case de novo. The trial court issued a decision also holding that the interaction in question was in fact a field inquiry, which did not require constitutional justification and denied the appeal. Defendant subsequently appealed that ruling as well.
On appeal, defendant contended that the interaction at issue was an investigative detention, which required a showing of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify it. He argued that, because the officer parked his cruiser behind defendant’s vehicle, no reasonable person in his position would have felt free to leave.
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. The member of the public is free to depart at will and need not interact with the officer at all if they do not wish to. An investigative detention / Terry stop is a temporary seizure that restricts a person’s movement, and must be based on an officer’s reasonable and particularized suspicion that an individual has just engaged in, or was about to engage in, criminal activity. A Terry stop occurs during a police encounter when an objectively reasonable person would feel that his or her right to move has been restricted. The test of whether an encounter is a field inquiry or Terry stop is simply whether a reasonable person in the individual’s place would feel free to terminate the encounter and depart.
In this case, the Appellate Court determined that this encounter emulated a Terry stop where the officer would have to show reasonable and particularized suspicion that an individual has just engaged in, or was about to engage in, criminal activity. Additionally, the court noted that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to leave the encounter. Since there was no objectively reasonable basis for the officer to believe that the driver in this case was impaired or in need of help the trial court’s decision was revered.
At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients for appeals in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to motion to suppress evidence obtained in violation of the U.S. and N.J. Constitutions. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.
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