What is Probable Cause in New Jersey and what is Lawful Interaction of Police?

State v. Alamilla

Appellate Docket No.: A-5952-17T1

Decided September 23, 2020

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reviewed a trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress 15 soil bags of marijuana found in the back of a tractor trailer, after the driver blurted a confession after being confronted by law enforcement.


In State v. Alamilla, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers were observing a parking lot known as a high drug-trafficking area.  The officers, with years of experience of arrests involving tractor trailers distributing large quantities of drugs, observed a telephone call between a van and the tractor trailer.  The van and tractor trailer left together. Officers followed.  The van and tractor trailer stopped at a dead end, picked up another box truck, and then proceeded behind a warehouse.

At this warehouse, DEA officers, convinced from their years of experiencing that what they were witnessing was indeed a drug-trafficking scheme, confronted the individuals with their badges shown.  Their guns were not drawn and they did not detain or arrest anyone. The officers asked defendant, the driver of the tractor trailer, what was in the truck.  Defendant—who was not handcuffed or physically restrained in any way—responded “[c]ome on you already know [what we are doing]” and that “[y]ou know it’s weed [inside the tractor-trailer].” The officer asked if defendant would consent to a search and, after defendant signed a consent form, the officers saw the nineteen soil bags of marijuana, which were bumpy, vacuum-sealed, and lighter than the packaging indicated.

Defendant was arrested and would later make a motion to suppress the evidence based on an unlawful search.  The trial court found that the officers had a reasonable suspicion, based off their experience, that a crime was being committed and therefore acted reasonable in performing a stop and confronting the defendant.  Afterwards, defendant’s confession was made unrestrained and without force or coercion, so the officers were not required to read him his miranda rights.  The confession and consent to search allowed officers to search the vehicle.


LAW:   Interactions with Police:

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.

Courts review of facts:  How ??

When “determining whether a seizure occurred, a court must consider whether ‘in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he [or she] was not free to leave.’” State v. Stovall, 170 N.J. 346, 355 (2002) (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980)); see also State v. Tucker, 136 N.J. 158, 164 (1994). To establish that a stop was valid, the State has the burden to prove that the police were aware of “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, [gave] rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 338 (2010) (quoting State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 20 (2004)); see also Terry, 392 U.S. at 20. If there was no reasonable suspicion, evidence discovered during a search conducted during the detention is subject to exclusion. State v. Chisum, 236 N.J. 530, 546 (2019).

To determine whether reasonable suspicion exists, a court must consider the totality of the circumstances, viewing the “whole picture” rather than taking each fact in isolation. State v. Nelson, 237 N.J. 540, 554-55 (2019) (quoting Stovall, 170 N.J. at 361). This analysis may also consider police officers’ “background and training,” id. at 555, including their ability to “make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that ‘might well elude an untrained person.'” Ibid. (quoting United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002)). “‘Furtive’ movements by [a] defendant,” unaccompanied by other circumstances, “cannot provide reasonable and articulable suspicion to support a detention in the first instance.” Rosario, 229 N.J. at 277; see also State v. Dunbar, 434 N.J. Super. 522, 527 (App. Div. 2014).

Investigative stops are justified, even absent probable cause, “if the evidence, when interpreted in an objectively reasonable manner, shows that the encounter was preceded by activity that would lead a reasonable police officer to have an articulable suspicion that criminal activity had occurred or would shortly occur.” State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 505 (1986).  Courts are to determine whether the totality of the circumstances gives rise to an “articulable or particularized” suspicion of criminal activity, not by use of a strict formula, but “through a sensitive appraisal of the circumstances in each case.” Ibid. Our Supreme Court recognized the two-step analysis set forth in United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418 (1981),

  1. for determining whether the totality of circumstances creates a “particularized suspicion.” A court must first consider the officer’s objective observations. The evidence collected by the officer is “seen and weighed not in terms of library analysis by scholars, but as understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement.” “[A] trained police officer draws inferences and makes deductions . . . that might well elude an untrained person. The process does not deal with hard certainties, but with probabilities.” Second, a court must determine whether the evidence “raise[s] a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.”

[Id. at 501 (alterations in original) (citations omitted) (quoting Cortez, 449 U.S. at 418).]

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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