To Effectuate a Traffic Stop, Or Investigation and Questioning Officers Only Need a Reasonable Suspicion That a Crime Is Being Committed
Appellate Docket No.: A-2002-19
Decided October 18, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reviewed whether probable cause existed for a search of the trunk revealing marijuana and firearms.
In State v. Days-Jackson, while on duty one night, Rahway police detectives Michael Mezey and Scott Maloney observed a car parked on the side of the road. The detectives had the windows open in their car. While driving by the parked car, the detectives observed a cloud of white smoke coming from its open windows. The officers also smelled an odor of burnt marijuana. The detectives parked and approached the car on foot.
Defendant was the driver of the car; there was a female passenger. Mezey approached the car on the passenger side and Maloney went to the driver’s side. When asked about the cloud of smoke, defendant and his passenger admitted to smoking marijuana earlier, but stated “it was all gone.” Maloney observed the passenger attempting to conceal a hand-rolled cigar, later determined to be marijuana, and observed two open containers of alcohol on the center console. The detectives then asked both individuals to get out of the car. During their search, the detectives found a second hand-rolled cigar containing marijuana in the passenger’s possession.
The detectives also searched the vehicle’s passenger compartment, finding (1) a digital scale, with marijuana residue, inside the center console; (2) a clear, empty, plastic bag containing marijuana residue; (3) a container bearing marijuana residue; and (4) a bag of suspected marijuana in a purse found on the floor where the passenger was sitting. During the search, the detectives smelled an odor of raw marijuana they believed emanated from the trunk area, since they had removed all of the marijuana found in the passenger compartment.
Because of the discovery of the scale and the smell of raw marijuana that could not be explained from the small amount of marijuana found in the passenger compartment, the detectives concluded they had probable cause to open and search the trunk. In the trunk, detectives found thirteen grams of marijuana in a clear, plastic bag; a .32 caliber revolver, loaded with five .32 caliber cartridges; and ten .40 caliber cartridges, three of which were hollow point. Defendant was subsequently charged in an indictment with first-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(j); fourth-degree possession of a prohibited device, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(f); and in a second indictment with second-degree certain persons not to have weapons, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b(1).
Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in the trunk. The Court found that the officers had probable cause based on the totality of the circumstances, that based on their training and experience, and the finding of a scale and an odor that was inconsistent with the marijuana found in the passenger area. The defendant appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed, finding all that is required for probable cause is that there is a fair probability, given the totality of the circumstances and common sense, that contraband may be found. Here, the detectives found a scale with marijuana residue and smelled raw marijuana after removing all marijuana from the passenger compartment. Those circumstances, coupled together, were sufficient to support the trial court’s finding of probable cause necessary to search the trunk.
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, request a search warrant, and 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.
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