New Jersey Defendant’s Conviction Vacated After Appellate Court Finds Officers Lacked Reasonable Suspicion to Prolong Traffic Stop

State v. Michael T. Conner-White

Appellate Docket No.: A-3136-22

Decided June 19, 2024

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reversed a denial of a motion to suppress after finding officers lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to prolong defendant’s traffic stop.

In State v. Conner-White, on September 20, 2020, while on patrol just before midnight, a Berlin Township police officer observed the vehicle driven by defendant had a partially functional taillight and witnessed defendant improperly utilize a turn signal. The officer activated his emergency lights to conduct a motor vehicle stop. Defendant did not pull over immediately but drove on for a minute, before pulling over onto a side street.

The officer requested defendant’s driving credentials and asked defendant why he delayed before pulling over. Defendant responded he was looking for a location to safely pull over and gave the officer his Pennsylvania driver’s license and the vehicle registration card. He was unable to locate the insurance documentation. Defendant explained the car was a rental and that he was an Uber driver.

Within a couple minutes, a second officer arrived on the scene to assist as back-up, with a police canine in his vehicle. The first officer asked defendant about a cellphone and wallet he saw in the glove compartment and desserts in the back seat. Defendant advised the phone belonged to a girl, and the desserts were his sister’s. Defendant said he started the night in Philadelphia and had some earlier Uber drop-offs in Pennsauken and Cherry Hill. He could not recall his more recent stops, explaining he was unfamiliar with the area. The officer questioned defendant’s account, stating defendant had not been coming from the direction of Cherry Hill, but instead from the opposite direction. The officer asked defendant for the location of his next pick-up, and defendant gave varied answers at different times. The officer advised defendant to continue searching for the insurance card.

Both officers returned to their patrol vehicles; the first officer checked whether defendant had a New Jersey driving record, and the second officer checked defendant’s criminal history. Approximately seventeen minutes into the traffic stop, these searches turned up no results of note: no New Jersey traffic offenses and no outstanding warrants.

Based on the circumstances and defendant’s failure to satisfactorily recount where he had had been, the first officer asked defendant for written consent to search the vehicle. Defendant did not deny or grant consent but objected to the request for consent.

Because defendant did not consent to a search of his car, approximately thirty-one minutes into the traffic stop, the officers on the scene employed an exterior canine sniff of the vehicle. The dog positively indicated on the vehicle. At that point, the officers searched defendant, which yielded negative results. The search of the vehicle, however, yielded marijuana, controlled dangerous substances, packaging materials, a digital scale, a handgun, two extended magazines, and hollow nose bullets.

Defendant was charged and filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized for an unlawful search.  The Court found that officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop due to the broken taillight.  They appropriately asked defendant initial questions as to his whereabouts.  The trial court also found that defendant’s inconsistent statements were grounds to extend the search and conduct a canine sniff of the vehicle.  The Court denied defendant’s motion to suppress under those grounds.

Defendant appealed and the Appellate Division reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, finding that defendant did not supply inconsistent statements, but rather different answers to the same questions that did not contradict one another. For example, defendant was asked about the other phone in his car. He first indicated it was a girl’s and later claimed it was another Uber driver’s. While these are different answers, they are not necessary contradictory. With no inconsistent statements, Defendant’s broken taillight, failure to provide an insurance card, and unfamiliarity with the surrounding area were not grounds to extend the traffic stop and request a canine sniff. The Court’s denial of the motion to suppress was reversed and defendant’s conviction was vacated.

This case is important to understand that officers do not need much in order to request a canine sniff and extend a traffic stop.  However, officers need more than just the grounds of the initial traffic stop. Relevant here, inconsistent statements by a defendant after the initial stop is made could be grounds to extend that search.  Without independent grounds for reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity could be occurring, officers may not unreasonable extend traffic stops, as was the case here.

If you have been charged with an unlawful possession of a weapon or firearm, or any CDS charge as a result of a traffic stop that resulted in a search of your vehicle, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today. We defend first degree crime, second degree crime, third degree crime, fourth degree crime, disorderly persons offense, municipal ordinance violation, or traffic ticket / DUI/DWI, At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court and municipal court for criminal matters like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to ensure prosecutors, police, and even judges follow the law.

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 County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington ,Haddon Heights ,Pine Hill ,Bellmawr ,Haddon Township , Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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