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New Jersey Supreme Court: Detention of Motel Room Occupants After Reason for Police Visit Resolved Is Unlawful Seizure, Evidence Subject to Exclusionary Rule

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that police detention of motel room occupants for warrant checks after a noise complaint had been resolved constituted an unlawful seizure, and all evidence obtained as a result of the unconstitutional search and seizure must be suppressed.

Neptune police officers Harris and Sibole responded to a noise complaint about loud music within a motel room. They made contact with the renter of the room, Zykia Reevey.

Officer Harris reported seeing approximately 10 people in the room. Reevey apologized for the disturbance and invited the officers inside. At Harris’ request, Reevey lowered the music volume. Harris didn’t issue a noise violation summons, and he later testified that the “investigation was complete when [Reevey] agreed to turn the noise down and [he] decided not to give her a summons….”

Nevertheless, the officers asked everyone in the room for their identification in order to check for outstanding warrants. No one was permitted to leave until the warrant checks came back, at which time occupants were released on an individual basis as each person was cleared. Keshown Woodard was cleared, but for reasons unclear from the record, he either was not released or chose to stay. Deyvon Chisum’s warrant check came back positive; he was placed under arrest. Afterward, Harris performed a search incident to arrest for weapons and discovered a handgun in his waistband. Harris then ordered all remaining occupants in the room to put their hands up and advised that they would be patted down for weapons. Woodard had a handgun in his possession and placed under arrest.

Woodard and Chisum were charged with weapons offenses. They filed motions to suppress the evidence, which the trial court denied. Both men then pleaded guilty to various charges. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of their motions, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear their appeal “limited to the issues of whether the police were authorized to detain the defendants and to conduct pat-down searches for weapons.”

The Court began its analysis by reviewing the law governing an investigative detention or Terry stop, which derives its name from the seminal U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). An investigative detention occurs when police accost an individual and restrain his or her freedom to walk away; the person has been seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Id. Under Terry, police are prohibited from randomly stopping and detaining an individual without particularized suspicion that he or she just engaged in or is about to engage in criminal activity. Any investigative detention that is not based on reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity constitutes an unconstitutional seizure, and any evidence discovered is subject to the Exclusionary Rule. State v. Elders, 927 A.2d 1250 (N.J. 2007).

Applying the governing law to the facts of this case, the Court concluded that “the detention of the motel room occupants, including Chisum and Woodard, was unconstitutional.”

The Court noted that the purpose of the officers’ visit to the motel room was to investigate a noise complaint. The investigatory purpose for the officers’ presence in the motel room ended when they declined to issue a summons for the noise violation and basically concluded that those present in the room were not engaged in any criminal activity.

Once the volume was lowered and no summons was issued, the officers’ mission was completed. The Court explained that subsequently detaining the occupants and submitting them to warrant checks “was unnecessary and improper because doing so would do nothing to help confirm or undermine the police officers’ decision regarding the noise complaint.” Further, the officers exceeded the time needed to resolve the issue that prompted the investigatory stop, i.e., the noise complaint, in the first place. 

The investigatory detention that took place after officers decided not to issue a summons was not based on a reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity occurring in the room, and thus it constituted an unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, the Court ruled. Consequently, the evidence discovered on Chisum and Woodard is subject to the Exclusionary Rule.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the matter to the trial court to withdraw the defendants’ guilty pleas and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: State v. Chisum, 2019 N.J. LEXIS 187 (2019). 

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