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New Jersey Supreme Court: Description of Race and Gender of Robbery Suspects, Without More, Doesn’t Constitute Reasonable Suspicion for Investigatory Traffic Stop of Black Motorists

by Mark Wilson

THE NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT unanimously held that police lacked reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop a vehicle occupied by three Black men based solely on a radio dispatch that two Black males had just robbed a convenience store in the area and one was armed with a handgun. In so holding, the Court explained: “That information, which effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion, was insufficient to justify the stop of the vehicle and therefore does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

Around midnight on May 7, 2011, approximately $600 was stolen during an armed robbery of a Hamilton, New Jersey, 7-Eleven store. At about 12:15 a.m., dispatch informed Hamilton Township sergeant Mark Horan that the robbery “had just occurred,” and the suspects were described “as two Black males, one with a handgun.

Driving toward the 7-Eleven, Horan shined his police cruiser’s spotlight into oncoming vehicles. He let the first vehicle pass because it was occupied by a man and a woman who reacted to the spotlight. The second vehicle was occupied by three Black men who did not react to the spotlight with “alarm or annoyance” as the occupants of the first vehicle had, according to Horan. Instead, Horan claimed that they “acted suspiciously” when they showed no reaction and kept looking straight ahead. “Sometimes people who prefer not to be noticed tend to ignore the spotlight,” Horan stated.

Based only on the suspects’ description and non-reaction to the spotlight, Horan stopped the vehicle and radioed in the Pennsylvania license plate number and vehicle description as the 2000 silver Toyota Corolla. When two other officers arrived, all three approached the vehicle with guns drawn.

One officer said the robbery suspects had been wearing dark or black clothing or jackets. As Horan approached the vehicle, he saw “some dark jackets” on the rear passenger seat and floor.

Officers identified the vehicle occupants as Tyrone Miller, Peter Nyema, and Jamar Myers. When dispatch advised that the vehicle had been reported stolen, all three men were removed from the vehicle and arrested.

Horan removed the dark clothing from the car, and the officers searched other parts of the vehicle. They found more clothing in the trunk and a black semi-automatic handgun wrapped in a red bandana under the hood. They also seized just under $600 in cash from the three men, which was the approximate amount reported stolen from the 7-Eleven.

A grand jury charged all three men with first-degree robbery and several other offenses. Miller eventually pleaded guilty to two second-degree weapons offenses and agreed to testify against Nyema and Myers.

The trial court then granted a joint motion of Myers and Nyema to suppress the gun but denied their request to suppress the clothing and money, finding that the initial stop was supported by reasonable and articulable suspicion, the clothing fell within the plain view exception and the money was lawfully seized incident to arrest.

Myers pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the money and clothing. The court imposed a 12-year prison term.

Nyema eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery. The trial court sentenced him to a 15-year prison term.

Both Myers and Nyema appealed the partial denial of their joint motion to suppress. The Superior Court, Appellate Division affirmed, and the Supreme Court denied review in Myers’ case. However, a different panel of the Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed and remanded for further proceedings in Nyema’s. The State petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court for review, arguing that the Nyema decision directly conflicted with the Myers holding. The Court granted review, granted Myers’ reconsideration, and consolidated the cases.

The Court observed that the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution are nearly identical in their protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under both, “searches and seizures conducted without warrants issued upon probable cause are presumptively unreasonable and therefore invalid.” State v. Elders, 927 A.2d 1250 (N.J. 2007). The State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the warrantless search falls within one of the limited number of recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. State v. Pineiro, 853 A.2d 887 (N.J. 2004).

The Court stated that the exception at issue in the present case is an investigative stop, i.e., a brief detention by police during which the person’s movement is restricted. See State v. Rosario, 162 A.3d 249 (N.J. 2017) (describing an investigative stop as a police encounter during which an objectively reasonable person would not feel free to leave). A traffic stop, regardless of how brief or limited, constitutes a seizure of the person. State v. Scriven, 140 A.3d 535 (N.J. 2016).

However, an investigative stop doesn’t violate either the U.S. or New Jersey Constitution “if it is based on ‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences form those facts,’ give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” State v. Rodriguez, 796 A.2d 857 (N.J. 2002) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)). While reasonable suspicion is a lower burden than probable cause, neither “inarticulate hunches” nor subjective good faith satisfies that less demanding burden. State v. Stovall, 788 A.2d 746 (N.J. 2002).

In reviewing the applicable case law, the Court explained that a description of a suspect’s race and gender, without any further physical descriptors, is insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory detention. See State v. Shaw, 64 A.3d 499 (N.J. 2012); State v. Caldwell, 730 A.2d 352 (1999). Similarly, the Court explained that “seemingly furtive movements, without more, are insufficient to constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion.” See Rosario; State v. Lund, 573 A.2d 1376 (N.J. 1990). Finally, the Court stated that avoidance of eye contact, without other suspicious behavior, is not an indication of suspicious behavior. See State v. Stampone, 775 A.2d 193 (N.J. App. Div. 2001); United States v. Foster, 824 F.3d 84 (4th Cir. 2016); United States v. Hernandez-Alvarado, 891 F.2d 1414 (9th Cir. 1989); United States v. Smith, 799 F.2d 704 (11th Cir. 1986).

Applying the foregoing principles to the present case, the Court held that based on the information Horan possessed prior to conducting the traffic stop he didn’t have reasonable and articulable suspicion to do so.

The Court stated that the entirety of the information Horan had was that two Black males, one with a handgun, robbed a convenience store. It explained that there was nothing in the dispatch “that would differentiate the two Black male suspects from any other Black men in New Jersey.” The Court declared that the generic description at issue in this case “encompasses each and every man belonging to a particular race [and] cannot, without more, meet the constitutional threshold of individualized suspicion.”

The Court rejected the State’s argument that the defendants’ non-reaction to Horan shinning the spotlight into their vehicle was evidence of suspicious behavior giving rise to reasonable suspicion, citing case law supporting its rejection. More generally, the Court expressly dismissed the notion that nervousness or lack thereof constitutes suspicious behavior, pointing out that if it were otherwise “whatever individuals may do—whether they do nothing, something, or anything in between—the behavior can be argued to be suspicious.”

The Court concluded that “the non-specific and non-individualized factors asserted here do not add up to a totality of circumstances analysis upon which reasonable suspicion can be found.” It stated that Horan simply “had a hunch,” but that “is not the standard.” Thus, the Court stated that the motion to suppressed should have been granted.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed Nyema, reversed Myers, and vacated Myer’s conviction. See: State v. Nyema, 267 A.3d 449 (N.J. 2022).

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Related legal cases

State v. Nyema

United States v. Foster

State v. Shaw

State v. Stampone

State v. Caldwell

State v. Lund

United States v. Hernandez-Alvarado

United States v. Smith

 

 

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