Whether an informant’s confidential tip can be the basis for a traffic stop.
Submitted by New Jersey New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In the Mesadieu case, the Appellate Division held that Mesadieu’s detention was lawful. The New Jersey Supreme Court has established under State v. Davis, 104, N.J. 490, 504 (1986) that a court must evaluate the totality of the circumstances surrounding the police-citizen encounter to determine the lawfulness of a given seizure. Under State v. Golotta, 178 N.J. 205, 213 (2003), “an informant’s tip is a factor to be considered when evaluating whether an investigatory stop is justified.”
A court assess a tip by considering “closely intertwined” factors: the tip’s veracity, its reliability, and the tipster’s basis of knowledge. Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 230 (1983); State v. Stovall, 140 N.J. 346, 362 (2002).
The court has held that police can establish reasonable suspicion based on a confidential informant’s tip. State v. Birkenmeier, 185 N.J. 552, 561 (2006). The informant in Birkenmeier “had previously provided information that led to two ‘major’ drug and weapons seizures and two arrests”; furthermore, the informant “provided particularized information,” including “defendant’s name[,] . . . address[, and] . . . physical description; the make, model, and license tag number of defendant’s car; the fact that defendant would be leaving his home at 4:30 p.m. to make a marijuana delivery; and the fact that defendant would be carrying the drugs in a laundry tote bag.” Ibid. The police subsequently “observed defendant leaving his home at 4:30 p.m., carrying a laundry tote bag, and driving away in the car” that the confidential informant described. Ibid.
The facts in Mesadieu’s case are very similar except for information about the type of container Mesadieu would use, the confidential informant’s tip in Mesadieu was as detailed as the one in Birkenmeier.
“[I]f an officer has articulable reasonable suspicion independent from the reason for the traffic stop that a suspect possesses narcotics, the officer may continue a detention to administer a canine sniff.” Dunbar, 229 N.J. at 540, quoting State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 479-80 (1998).
The court refused to conclude whether the confidential informant’s tip was enough to suspect that Mesadieu committed non-traffic related offenses, they weighed the tip as strong evidence and considered other factors involving Mesadieu, including the fact that he attempted to flee, driving erratically and evasively, abruptly turning left at an intersection without signaling, and once on the high way moved to the left-most lane and then moved to the exit lane so suddenly that other cars had to brake to avoid collision. Finally, Mesadieu’s hesitancy to obey the command to exit his vehicle and his agitated state during the stop were all weighed together, alongside the confidential informant’s tip, to give rise to the police’s suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity.