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State v. Letts

Decided: January 2, 1992.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY
v.
JESSE B. LETTS AND RICHARD JOHNSON, DEFENDANTS



O'Hagan, J.s.c.

O'hagan

The opinion of the court was delivered by

O'HAGN, J.S.C.

In this case the court is asked to decide the validity of a unique drug courier profile, based primarily on the race of the defendants. The Superior Court, Appellate Division, has directed that no rational inference may be drawn from racial characteristics, consequently there was no probable cause to stop the defendants' vehicle and the motion to suppress must be granted.

On April 2, 1991, Neil Layton, a 14 year veteran of the Neptune Township Police Department, assigned for the last four years to the Detective Bureau, observed a car driven by Jesse Letts, a 42 year old white male, on Heck Avenue, west of its intersection with Memorial Parkway. Riding as a passenger was the defendant Richard Johnson, a 33 year old black male. The car stopped in front of Boston Way Village, a housing project in adjacent Asbury Park, which is occupied for the most part, if not exclusively, by black families. It is accurate to say that primarily, if not entirely, lower income persons live in Boston Way Village. The Asbury Park Police Department has compiled statistics establishing that Boston Way Village, in fact, is a very high drug trafficking area. The State asserts that

45% of all drug related incidents encountered by the Asbury Park Police Department between January of 1990 and June of 1991 occurred in Boston Way Village. (Statistics taken from the State's brief.)

After the black male passenger exited the car and walked north into Boston Way Village, the white male driver went west on Heck Avenue. The Detective next saw the Letts vehicle on Embury Avenue, a parallel street one block over. The car was parked on the south side of the street facing towards the east, or Memorial Parkway. The officer concluded that the defendant Letts, after dropping Mr. Johnson off, had gone west on Heck Avenue and taken two left hand turns, coming to rest on Embury Avenue, a parallel street to Heck Avenue.

Detective Layton drove past the car and observed the defendant Letts slouched down in his seat. When the unmarked car passed, the defendant Letts raised a magazine, he had been reading, up by his head, and at the same time turned his head away from the officer. Earlier the officer had observed the magazine placed apparently for reading purposes on the steering wheel. The detective parked his car and observed the defendant Letts, at the same time the officer kept his eye on Boston Way Village. The defendant Johnson next appeared 15 minutes later as he walked out of Boston Way Village across

the church parking lot, down through an alley which is behind a plumbing supply house, and ultimately entered into the passenger's side of the Letts car which then immediately drove off. The officer was familiar with the area and concluded that when Mr. Johnson exited Boston Way Village, he could not have seen the Letts car because the plumbing supply building would have obstructed the view.

After the car drove off, the detective pulled off in pursuit and shortly pulled the Letts car over on Memorial Parkway. Detective Layton candidly indicated that there was no motor vehicle infraction that he had observed and further that he could not relate any furtive movements or other suspicious activities on the part of either defendant aside from the facts noted above. In the course of the motor vehicle stop, a white powder, suspected to be cocaine, was observed on the console separating the two front seats. After the defendants exited the car, additional CDS and paraphernalia were found by the detective and his backup police officer. Each defendant conceded at the hearing that if the motor vehicle stop were found to be constitutionally valid there was nothing constitutionally impermissible about the actual discovery of the CDS in the car and on the person of the two defendants. Thus, the narrow issue to be resolved here concerns whether the police had a valid basis to stop the Letts' car on Memorial Parkway for investigatory purposes.

The State asserts that the conduct of the two defendants considered in the light of Detective ...


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