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State v. Thomas

Decided: June 30, 1988.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J.


The question presented in this case is whether a police officer was justified in conducting a protective search for weapons on a suspect who was the target of an investigatory stop. Defendant, Isaac Thomas, pled guilty to possession of a controlled dangerous substance after the trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence discovered during the search. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, upholding the denial of the motion. We granted certification, 108 N.J. 658 (1987), and we now reverse.


Both defendant and the investigating officer testified at the suppression hearing. The trial court accepted the credibility of the officer. We find no basis to disturb that ruling and therefore accept as true the officer's account of the relevant facts.

On May 3, 1985, at about midnight, Detective -- Sergeant Williams of the Passaic Detective Bureau received a message from a police dispatcher that an anonymous informant had telephoned the police. The caller said that a man named Ike, dressed in a plaid cap, tan jacket, and wearing gold frame glasses, was in possession of illegal drugs inside the Shangri La Bar at 265 Passaic Street.

Williams and two other officers proceeded to the Shangri La Bar. The officers entered the bar, and Williams observed that the defendant, one of approximately twenty-five people in the bar, fit the informant's description. The officer also recognized defendant from a prior arrest for drug possession. Williams testified that on confronting the defendant, he immediately

"asked him to stand away from the bar and I proceeded to frisk him * * * for any possible weapons or anything that may be in his possession at that time." Further, Williams recalled that "I feeled [ sic ] what he had was inside his jacket pocket, was something that appeared to be sharp inside of the pocket." The following colloquy occurred during Williams' cross-examination:

Q. Okay. So you went into his pocket and the first item that you felt when you went in his pocket was a straw, or the thing that alerted you that it might be a possible weapon was a straw, is that correct?

A. Sort of a weapon or a potential weapon. You have to be careful with cocaine dealers because they carry razor blades with them, not to harm anyone, but to cut the cocaine up prior to injecting it, so you have to be very -- when you're putting your hand inside somebody's pocket, you have to be careful because you might end up losing your finger, inadvertently losing your finger, so it's a situation like that. I felt something sharp there so I went there to extract it because I didn't know if it potentially could be used as a weapon.

When the detective reached into the pocket, he took hold of several objects. He pulled out a two-inch straw (later identified as the sharp object), a pack of rolling papers, a hand-rolled cigarette, a tinfoil packet containing cocaine, and a manila envelope containing marijuana. Thereafter, Williams placed defendant under arrest.

In denying defendant's motion to suppress the articles seized during the search, the trial court found that it was proper for the police to have responded to the anonymous tip and confront defendant in the bar. Further, the court held that the "combination of all the factors" described by Officer Williams provided a justifiable basis for the pat-down search of defendant. Finally, the court concluded that Detective Williams had not exceeded the permissible scope of such a search by emptying defendant's pocket, and thus the cocaine was discovered legitimately. Following denial of the suppression motion, defendant pled guilty to unlawful possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

The Appellate Division affirmed in an unpublished decision. The court agreed with the trial court that the anonymous tip justified the initial investigatory stop. The Appellate Division observed that when the information relayed by the tip was

"combined with the detective's knowledge of defendant's prior drug law violation, a sufficient degree of suspicion justified frisking the defendant for a razor." Further, "[t]he likelihood the defendant possessed the razor came from the detective's prior drug law enforcement experience." The court ...

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