State V. Pinson: Search Warrants and the Truth
January 29, 2021 /
State v. Pinson, 461 N.J. Super. 536 (App. Div. 2019)
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
- Whether a Law Division judge improperly invalidated an arrest warrant when he ruled that an affiant made a false statement in support of the arrest warrant, excised that statement from the affidavit, and concluded the affidavit no longer supported probable cause.
- The dispute over the sufficiency of the affidavit arose after grand juries in Middlesex and Camden Counties returned several indictments, charging a multitude of weapons-related offenses, including murder, attempted murder, robbery, and carjacking.
- Defendants Anthony Pinson and Paul Sexton were charged in each indictment with one or more additional defendants: Darnell Konteh, Shaheed Wroten, Danique Simpson, Antoine Williams, and Ashley Stewart.
- Seven incidents allegedly occurred over the course of two months in New Brunswick and South Brunswick; several offenses, including murder, were allegedly committed during one incident in Camden.
- Pinson was the New Brunswick Police Dept. main target when they applied for a Complaint Warrant for unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, J.S.A.2C:39-4(a)(1). Pinson’s full name, address, social security number, date of birth, eye color and gender were set forth on the first page of the Complaint Warrant.
- A municipal judge signed the Complaint Warrant on November 29, 2017. Several hours later, detectives from the NBPD, Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO), and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stopped Pinson’s vehicle, executed the warrant, and allegedly observed the rear seat passenger, Konteh, attempting to conceal a shotgun in his pant leg.
- Police arrested Pinson, Konteh, and the front seat passenger, Sexton. The next morning, a Camden County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO) detective obtained a search warrant for Pinson’s car, and recovered two additional firearms from the trunk.
- All three firearms were preliminarily matched to the ballistics evidence recovered at the crime scenes in New Brunswick, South Brunswick, and Camden.
- In September 2018, Pinson, joined by Konteh, Wroten, Simpson, and Stewart moved to suppress the evidence seized from Pinson’s vehicle. They primarily claimed there was insufficient probable cause to support issuance of the arrest warrant because Pinson was “not clearly identifiable” on the video footage.
- The State countered the affidavit contained sufficient information for the issuing judge to find probable cause. The State did not brief any alternate theories of probable cause to justify the stop.
- On the return date of the Middlesex County motion in February 2019, the judge viewed the video in open court, with the consent of all counsel. Defendants argued the affiant’s statement identifying Pinson as the shooter was materially false and made in reckless disregard of the truth, but they did not request a Franks
- The judge permitted Williams – who had not joined Pinson’s motion – to argue case law that had not been briefed by the parties. He claimed excising the statement was required pursuant to Franks, 438 U.S. at 171, and State v. Howery, 80 N.J. 563, 568, (1979), and the remaining statements in the affidavit did not support probable cause to arrest Pinson. But Williams did not request a Franks Instead, defendants collectively argued the motion judge should evaluate the warrant’s sufficiency based on the four corners of the affidavit, even though she viewed the video and the issuing judge apparently had not.
- The State argued the statement at issue was not materially false because the affiant did not expressly state he “identified” Pinson on the video footage; he “just said surveillance video showed Pinson on the video.” According to the State, the affiant “had other reasons to believe” Pinson was “on the video,” and the fact that the affiant indicated he “reviewed the case report” meant that he was “sufficiently apprised of everything that was going on in the case.”
- Without expressly citing Franks, the State contended, however, “the only way that the judge would be able to determine whether it was or wasn’t a material misrepresentation would be to have a hearing and ask the officer himself . . .” The State proffered the affiant “would come in and say based on the circumstances, based on all of the information that he knew, Pinson is the person on the video.”
- The State argued, in the alternative, police had “reasonable suspicion to conduct a motor vehicle stop outside of that warrant.” That “independent reason” included the surveillance of Pinson’s car with the aid of a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device. Over objection by the defense, the judge permitted the State to file a supplemental brief to respond to the new arguments raised by Williams at the hearing, and to set forth its alternate theory for the motor vehicle stop.
- The State’s supplemental brief detailed the GPS surveillance of Pinson’s vehicle during the hours preceding the stop.
- According to the State: Pinson had been under investigation at the time for approximately two months for multiple shooting incidents that occurred in the New Brunswick and South Brunswick area. They believed him to be in possession of firearms, thus armed and dangerous. Detectives observed defendant drive from Essex County to New Brunswick and then circle the area of Remsen Avenue for approximately fifteen minutes without stopping. This area is also the area in which some of the shootings had occurred. The circling of the neighborhood for fifteen minutes without stopping is suspicious in and of itself. However, coupled with the fact that Pinson was presently under investigation for violent crimes involving firearms, this heightened detectives’ suspicions.
- Defendants have attacked the arrest warrant on the grounds that it lacks probable cause on its face. Not that there was a falsehood or reckless disregard under Franks, but again, that it doesn’t satisfy the probable cause requirement.
- The State has conceded in its brief that the affiant would not be able to independently identify the figure in the video as Mr. Pinson.
- The issue here is not whether the State has enough for probable cause, but it is whether the issuing judge knew it at the time of signing the arrest warrant.
- Ultimately, the judge determined “the affidavit of probable cause did not set forth sufficient evidence connecting the shootings to defendant Pinson.” The judge therefore granted the suppression motion based on an invalid arrest warrant.
- Defendants objected, arguing the State failed to set forth an alternate theory for the stop in its initial opposition brief. They also claimed the police reports contradicted the prosecutor’s account regarding the length of time Pinson’s car had circled the area prior to the stop, “and contained no other reference to independent grounds to conduct a stop.”
- About two weeks later, the judge heard argument on the State’s motion to reopen the suppression motion. The State reiterated its argument that defendants had been “on notice that the State intended to argue a different theory with regards to the validity of the arrest” since the first day of argument on the suppression motion two months earlier.
- The State provided defendants with “all of the documents that the State would have been relying upon for its brief” on March 29, 2019. Defendants argued it would be fundamentally unfair to permit the State to present an alternative theory to justify the motor vehicle stop after the arrest warrant was found invalid.
- In a written opinion issued on May 14, 2019, the trial judge denied the State’s motion. The judge found “the State clearly set forth all the facts that would lead to sufficient probable cause without a warrant in this case.” However,, the judge concluded reopening the hearing and permitting the State to present its alternate theory would “strongly prejudice” defendants, and “the State had offered no reasonable or adequate explanation as to why it initially failed to introduce this evidence . . . when the suppression motion was filed or at the first suppression hearing.” Accordingly, the trial judge ordered all evidence recovered from the motor vehicle stop suppressed.
- On appeal, the State claims the motion judge erroneously denied its motion to reopen the suppression hearing and present testimonial evidence where, as here, the parties disputed material facts. The State also “maintains that the affidavit of probable cause supporting Pinson’s arrest warrant was sufficient and that the trial court’s ruling regarding the validity of the warrant was incorrect and based on the court’s inappropriate consideration of video evidence not viewed by the warrant-issuing judge.”
- Finally, the State sought excludable time from April 22, 2019, the date on which it filed its motion to reopen, and May 14, 2019, the date on which the judge decided the motion. Defendants urge us to affirm the motion judge’s orders, primarily contending the State should not have multiple bites at the apple to justify the arrest.
- Whether an arrest warrant is supported by adequate probable cause is a question of law, which the appellate court will review de novo. An arrest — the most significant type of seizure by police — requires probable cause and generally is supported by an arrest warrant or by demonstration of grounds that would have justified one. Like a search warrant, an arrest warrant is presumed valid, and a defendant challenging its validity has the burden to prove there was no probable cause supporting the issuance of the warrant. A warrant cannot be based, however, on an affidavit or testimony that does not provide a substantial basis for determining the existence of probable cause. Probable cause is not established by a conclusory affidavit that does not provide a magistrate with sufficient facts to make an independent determination as to whether the warrant should issue.
- For probable cause to arrest, there must be probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person sought to be arrested committed the offense. Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers’ knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed. That showing calls for more than a mere suspicion of guilt, but less evidence than is needed to convict at trial. A court must consider the totality of the circumstances when assessing the reasonable probabilities that flow from the evidence submitted in support of a warrant application. In making the probable cause determination, the judge may consider only information which is contained within the four corners of the supporting affidavit or sworn testimony provided by law enforcement personnel.
- In the context of arrest warrants, the probable cause determination must be made based on the information contained within the four corners of the supporting affidavit.
- Assuming arguendo that Franks v. Delaware even applies in New Jersey, in certain circumstances, a defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to challenge the veracity of a warrant affidavit. In order to necessitate a Franks hearing, however, the defendant first must make a substantial preliminary showing that specific statements contained in the affidavit were knowingly and intentionally false or made with reckless disregard for the truth. The defendant also must demonstrate that without these material misstatements, the warrant fails for lack of probable cause.
- The collateral estoppel doctrine applies where the party asserting collateral estoppel proves: (1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.
- The New Jersey Supreme Court has extended the collateral estoppel doctrine to suppression hearings, noting the hallmark of the doctrine in the criminal context is the identity of the parties. Accordingly, the Court has concluded, absent unusual circumstances, a defendant could assert collateral estoppel as a bar to relitigating the issue of suppression only if he joined in the suppression motion in the first-decided action.
- In consolidated appeals, the court determined that the law division judge improperly invalidated an arrest warrant by excising an allegedly false statement in a supporting affidavit and concluding that the affidavit no longer supported probable cause because the law division judge should have first conducted an evidentiary hearing as required under Franks v. Delaware rather than improvidently performing “judicial surgery” without authority.
- The county judge correctly determined that the collateral estoppel doctrine prevented its consideration of a suppression motion because an identical companion suppression motion had been decided in another case in another county based on the same facts and involving the same parties.
- Orders vacated and action remanded.
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