NJ Appellate Court Reverses Decision: Unlawful Search & Suppression of Evidence | Hark & Hark Attorneys
Docket No. A-0082-22
Decided July 26, 2023
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal from an interlocutory order denying her motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of the van in which she was a passenger.
In November 2020, five New Jersey State Troopers were on an “intelligence led policing detail” at the New Jersey Turnpike’s Molly Pitcher Service Area. Officers were in plain clothes and were there to either deter, prevent crimes or apprehend suspects committing crimes. While in an unmarked police vehicle, four of the officers observed a silver Dodge Caravan with Illinois plates and tinted windows in the passenger area, pull into a space in either the furthest spot from the building or close to it and drove closer to get a better look to see what was going on. The officer later testified that the van was a rental registered to Enterprise. The officer indicated the vehicle was parked illegally because it was occupying two spaces. The officer saw defendant/front seat passenger take a marijuana cigarette and bring it up to her lips as she was licking it shut and twisting the ends closed.
As the suspect vehicle backed out of its parking space and began driving towards the exit, one of the undercover vehicles blocked the van’s path while another pulled next to it. As officers approached, they immediately detected the odor of raw marijuana when the driver lowered the window. All of the van’s occupants were removed from the vehicle and both the driver and front seat passenger surrendered hand-rolled cigarettes to the officers. Officers subsequently conducted a probable cause search of the vehicle which yielded marijuana, crack cocaine and a Taurus semi-automatic handgun with no magazine.
At the motion to suppress, defense counsel explored the bases for the detective’s opinions that the hand-rolled cigarette he watched defendant prepare contained marijuana and not tobacco, and that the van was illegally parked. The officer testified that he knew the cigarette contained marijuana and not tobacco based on his training and experience. He was approximately 15 yards away when viewing the defendant lick the cigarette. Ultimately, the trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The court found that the troopers had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop because the van was double-parked illegally and the officer observed defendant rolling a cigarette that the he recognized as containing marijuana. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, defendant contended that the State failed to present evidence of a parking violation and that observing someone using rolling papers, an item legal to possess and to use, does not provide police with reasonable and particularized suspicion that a crime is being committed. After considering all arguments and the trial court’s record, the Appellate Court agreed with defendant and reversed the trial court’s decision. The court articulated that that there was nothing illegal or suspicious about a person rolling a cigarette as rolling papers and loose tobacco were readily available. The court also noted they did not believe the officer’s assertion at the suppression hearing that he was 100% certain that defendant was rolling a marijuana cigarette was an objectively reasonable belief under the circumstances. Thus, because troopers lacked reasonable suspicion to have instigated an investigatory stop of the van, the court reversed the denial of defendant’s suppression motion.
At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining motions to suppress evidence seized as the result of an unlawful search. 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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