The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division in a drug possession case that highlighted an important question about search and seizure laws: At what point does a field inquiry escalate into an investigative detention?
In the case State v. Lurdes Rosario, the defendant was charged with third-degree possession of a controlled substance (heroin) after an encounter with an officer of the Colts Neck Police Department. According to the case syllabus, on May 1, 2013, officer Campan used his patrol car to block the defendant’s vehicle in a parking spot, turned on his patrol car’s rooftop light, and aimed the light at the parked vehicle. The officer claimed that his decision to do so was based on an anonymous tip that a woman was selling heroin out of a vehicle that fit the description of the defendant’s vehicle.
The officer testified that the defendant “scuffled around” with something in the passenger seat after the rooftop light was shined on the vehicle. The officer approached the vehicle and asked for the defendant’s identification and driver’s license. The officer recognized her has the subject of the anonymous tip and also recalled that he had arrested her on drug-related charges approximately six months earlier.
The officer asked what she was doing and whether there was anything in the vehicle that he should know about. The defendant produced an eyeglass case that contained a powdery substance which the officer identified as drugs. The officer then ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and placed her under arrest.
The defendant’s motion to suppress was denied because the trial court concluded that the encounter was not an investigative detention until the officer asked the defendant whether she had anything in the vehicle that he should know about. The defendant pled guilty. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for certification.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the decision, finding that the encounter escalated into an investigative detention when the officer blocked in the defendant’s vehicle, shined the light into the car, and approached the vehicle.
To understand this finding, it is important to distinguish a “field inquiry” from an “investigative detention.” A field inquiry occurs when a defendant reasonably believed that he or she could walk away without answering the officer’s questions. An investigative detention occurs when a reasonable person would feel that his or her movement was restricted. As such, an investigative detention is a temporary seizure that restricts the person’s movement, so an officer cannot conduct an investigative detention unless there is a reasonable suspicion that the suspect has engaged in or is about to engage in a criminal activity.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey found that the anonymous tip did not give the officer reasonable suspicion to conduct the investigative detention, so the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been granted.
As this case demonstrates, police officers must follow strict protocols in order for evidence to be admissible in a criminal case. If you are facing drug charges, it is imperative that you enlist the help of a criminal defense attorney who is willing to investigate your arrest and identify any procedural errors that could work in your favor.
If you are facing criminal charges in New Jersey, turn to the Law Office of Eric M. Mark. As a former Assistant Prosecutor, Mr. Mark has a unique knowledge and skillset that makes him particularly effective as a criminal defense lawyer.
Call 973-453-2009 to schedule a free consultation with a drug attorney in Elizabeth. You can learn more about criminal defense strategies by visiting the USAttorneys website.