There Are Different Standards for An Officer to Effectuate a Traffic Stop, Investigation, Arrest or Search
Appellate Docket No.: A-1201-20
Decided July 13, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reversed a granting of a motion to suppress of heroin found in a towed vehicle after a confidential informant provided a tip that defendant would be delivering heroin to an apartment complex.
In State v. Alvarez-Mercedes, On January 21, 2019, a confidential source informed New Jersey State Police Detectives and agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that defendant was engaged in the sale of narcotics and regularly transported drugs from his home in Philadelphia to New Jersey. While the confidential source had never worked with the New Jersey State Police before, he had previously provided information to a different agency that “led to arrests [and] drug seizures[,] as well as a large currency seizure.”
On the morning of January 23, 2019, the confidential source spoke with Detective Sergeant First Class Eric Hoffman and other officers at a DEA office. The source informed them that later that day, defendant would drive from Philadelphia to an apartment complex in Maple Shade, New Jersey with a large quantity of heroin in his vehicle. Hoffman was aware the source had previously worked with a different agency with successful results.
The confidential source specified the make, model, and color of defendant’s car—a white Infiniti SUV. He further notified Hoffman that defendant was traveling to the apartment complex to return the heroin to the individual from whom he had purchased it, because defendant “wasn’t happy with the quality of the heroin.” The confidential source stated he was present at the transaction when defendant originally purchased the drugs, and later “had personal conversations” where defendant expressed his dissatisfaction with the heroin’s quality and his desire to return it.
After speaking with the confidential source, Hoffman and other officers searched defendant in the police database. The officers confirmed defendant’s identity and learned he had previously been arrested by the DEA for distribution of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) and conspiracy. The officers learned from the DEA that defendant had attempted to flee during their earlier arrest of him.
As a result of this information, the New Jersey State Police, with assistance from the DEA, set up surveillance at the apartment complex. Sometime after sunset, officers observed a white Infiniti SUV with Pennsylvania license plates pull into the apartment complex. The vehicle circled the apartment complex parking lot several times before parking. Defendant then exited the vehicle carrying a gym bag and walked around the vehicle several times; the surveilling officers described him as “scanning the area [and] looking around.” Defendant re-entered the vehicle, drove to a different area of the parking lot, and again got out of the vehicle, this time without the gym bag.
At this point, Hoffman, Detective Ricardo Diaz, and Detective Andrew Oliveira approached defendant and identified themselves as law enforcement. The detectives immediately handcuffed defendant because he started to walk away from them, and they believed he was a flight risk given his earlier attempt to flee when arrested by the DEA. Defendant was read his Miranda rights and the detectives began to question him.
Defendant provided contradicting answers as to his reasoning for coming to the apartment complex. He also appeared nervous, did not make eye contact, and was shaking. Defendant declined consent to search his vehicle and police towed the vehicle as there was an active investigation and did not want to jeopardize the investigation with heavy police presence. Police uncovered two cell phones and $3,400 in cash from defendant’s person.
Police received a warrant and searched the vehicle, revealing two clear plastic baggies with blue wax folds of suspected heroin in the center dashboard, $1105 in cash in the center console, and two vacuum sealed bags—one containing heroin and the other containing heroin and fentanyl—in the gym bag.
Defendant was charged in an indictment with: (1) third-degree possession of a CDS, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1); and (2) first-degree possession with intent to distribute a CDS, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(1). He subsequently filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from his person and vehicle.
The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding that after the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant, they lacked probable cause to tow the vehicle and arrest defendant leading to finding the drugs. The State appealed.
The Appellate Division reversed, ruling that after viewing the totality of the circumstances and taking into account the veracity of the confidential informant and specificity of the information along with the CI being present during the previous transaction, the officers had probable cause when defendant was found in the parking lot with a duffle bag and began to provide contradictory statements. One of those actions alone may not have been enough for probable cause, but taken together with the CI’s information was enough to overcome a motion to suppress.
This case is important to understand the different levels of suspicion necessary for officers to take action. To effectuate a traffic stop or investigation and questioning officers only need a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed. To make an arrest or search and seize property, officers need probable cause – a higher standard than a reasonable suspicion.
If you or someone you know have been charged with any indictable offense or disorderly persons involving a search and/or questioning of police, contact the experienced attorney at Hark & Hark to ensure you are adequately defended, otherwise you could have negative impacts on your case like the defendant above.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.
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.