The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in December that police violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him to an investigatory detention based solely on the fact that he was the same race as the man the police were looking for. As a result, drugs found on the defendant were deemed “fruits” of an unconstitutional search and seizure and could not be used as evidence at trial. State v. Shaw, 2012 N.J. LEXIS 1263 (Dec. 13, 2012).
The police officers in State v. Shaw arrived at an apartment building to execute an arrest warrant for a named fugitive, just at the same time as the defendant and another individual were exiting the building. The defendant was detained because he refused to give his name, even though the officers had no basis to believe that he was the subject of their warrant, aside from the fact that the defendant and the fugitive were both black males. Shortly thereafter, other police officers arrived and determined that the defendant was not the target of the arrest warrant. One of the other officers, however, recognized the defendant and knew that he was wanted for an unrelated parole warrant. The defendant was then arrested and a search revealed that he had heroin in his possession.
The court first explained that under the Fourth Amendment, the police may not randomly stop and detain persons without having some particularized suspicion. Although they may conduct a “field inquiry” without any justification, a person may decline to answer any questions during this type of stop and his refusal to answer does not, without more, furnish grounds for his detention. When the subject of a field inquiry reasonably believes that he is not free to leave, however, the field inquiry becomes an “investigative stop,” which must be supported by a reasonable and particularized suspicion of criminal activity.
In this case, the police officers told the defendant that he was not free to leave until he gave his name, even though he was not observed engaging in any suspicious conduct and the only feature that he shared with the fugitive described in their warrant was that he was a black man. In the court’s opinion, this failed to meet the standard of reasonable suspicion required to detain a person against their will. The investigatory detention was therefore unlawful and all of the evidence obtained as the “fruits” of the unconstitutional search was therefore inadmissible.
The court also rejected the state’s contention that the evidence should be permitted under the “attenuation doctrine,” because it was only found after the defendant was determined to be the subject of a separate and unrelated warrant. Although the parole warrant was an intervening factor, the court concluded, it wasn’t sufficient to negate the taint of the initial unlawful detention, especially because the police officers’ tactic of stopping random individuals based on generalized racial descriptions was just the type of flagrant police misconduct that should weigh against application of the attenuation doctrine.
For more information about drug charges or search and seizure violations in New Jersey, or to schedule a free legal consultation, call the Law Offices of Palumbo & Renaud at 1-866-664-8118. Palumbo & Renaud has offices in Cranford, Elizabeth, and Manasquan and handles cases from Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Ocean County, and Union County.