Search And Seizure of a Handgun and Drugs Suppressed After Officers Lacked Reasonable Suspicion
Appellate Docket No.: A-77-20
Decided July 5, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey suppressed a search and seizure of a handgun and drugs after officers lacked reasonable suspicion defendant was committing a crime after exiting the walkway adjacent to an abandoned house.
In Goldsmith, on the evening of January 15, 2019, Officer Joseph Goonan and another officer were on patrol in Camden in what they believed to be a “high-crime area” known for shootings and drug dealing. While approaching the vacant house, the officers observed two individuals standing in front of it. When the officers exited their vehicle, the two individuals walked away. At the same time, a third person, defendant, exited the walkway that leads to the rear of the house.
Based on his training, 20 years of experience, and his belief that the vacant house was used for the sale of drugs and weapons, Officer Goonan found it suspicious that defendant was on the walkway next to the vacant house and believed defendant was engaged in drug dealing activity. The officers approached defendant, blocked his path at the end of the walkway, and began questioning him, asking for his name and for an explanation of his presence on that walkway.
According to Officer Goonan, defendant became nervous and looked up and down the street; he started sweating, and his hands began to shake. Defendant provided a name and informed officers that his identification was in his jacket pocket. Because defendant’s demeanor made him nervous, Officer Goonan told defendant that he would retrieve the identification from defendant’s pocket. At that point, defendant stated, “I appreciate if you guys didn’t pat me down,” arousing Officer Goonan’s suspicions even further.
Officer Goonan conducted a pat down for weapons. The officer felt a weapon in defendant’s jacket pocket and retrieved a handgun. Defendant was arrested, and police later recovered currency and drugs from defendant’s person. A search of the walkway revealed drugs in baggies that were the same color as the baggies of drugs found in defendant’s pockets.
Defendant was charged with weapons and drug offenses. Defendant moved to suppress the gun and drugs, arguing that both the stop and frisk were unlawful. The trial court granted the motion, finding the stop lawful but the frisk unlawful. The Appellate Division reversed.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey found at the time of the stop, officers lacked reasonable and articulable suspicion defendant was engaged in criminal activity. All officers observed was defendant acting nervous in a high crime area. This, without more, according to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, is insufficient to conduct a stop and frisk.
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, probable cause could justify a warrantless motor vehicle search if the findings were unforeseeable and spontaneous, otherwise a search warrant is necessary.
If you have been charged with any first degree crime, second degree crime, third degree crime, fourth degree crime, disorderly persons offense, municipal ordinance violation, or traffic ticket / DUI/DWI, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today. 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 Mantua, Township of Monroe, Borough of National Park, Township of Harrison, Borough of Paulsboro, Borough of Pitman, Township of Greenwich, Township of South Harrison, Borough of Swedesboro, Township of Franklin, Borough of Newfield, Township of West Deptford, Township of Washington, City of Woodbury, Borough of Woodbury Heights, Borough of Westville, Borough of Glassboro, Township of Woolwich, Township of Deptford, and Borough of Wenonah.