On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at: 287 N.J. Super. 147 (1996).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice HANDLER's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
STATE OF NEW JERSEY V. CHRISTOPHER ARTHUR (A-58-96)
Argued December 3, 1996 -- Decided March 18, 1997
HANDLER, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The primary issue on appeal is whether police officers had sufficient justification to carry out the investigatory stop of Christopher Arthur's car, which led to a seizure of illegal drugs from his person. Also addressed is whether an investigatory stop of a passenger who had exited Arthur's car and the seizure of drug paraphernalia from her were unlawful and, for that reason, invalidated the subsequent stop and search of Arthur.
Detective Smallwood was engaged in covert surveillance in an area known for heavy narcotics activity. On June 26, 1993, Detective Smallwood observed defendant, Christopher Arthur, park his car on the street and a person, later identified as Deborah Walls, enter the car on the passenger side, sit next to Arthur for a short time, and then exit the car holding a paper bag. Detective Smallwood concluded that Walls had obtained the bag during her encounter with Arthur because she was not observed carrying the bag prior to entering the car and because she could not have concealed the bag under her clothing. Based on his past experience, Detective Smallwood believed that he had just witnessed a drug transaction. Walls was subjected to an investigatory stop and the bag she was holding was searched. Found in the bag were narcotics paraphernalia: between 100 and 200 glass vials containing a white residue. Walls was placed under arrest.
Arthur's car, which had left the scene, was later stopped by a police patrol car that had received a radio transmission regarding suspected drug activity from Detective Smallwood. On being stopped, Arthur exited the vehicle and spontaneously stated that he had drugs in his pocket. The police searched him and found three vials of crack cocaine.
Arthur was indicted for third-degree possession of cocaine. He moved to suppress the cocaine evidence, alleging that the arresting officers did not have a legal basis for stopping his vehicle. The trial court denied the motion, finding that Detective Smallwood had formed a clear, articulable suspicion sufficient to stop both Walls and Arthur after observing Walls leave Arthur's vehicle with the paper bag. The court also found that the police were entitled to order Arthur out of the car after the car had been stopped, and that when Arthur had informed the detectives that he was carrying three bottles, the police had probable cause to search him and to seize the vials of cocaine. Lastly, the court concluded that, even if the search and seizure of Walls had been improper, Arthur's arrest had been entirely lawful.
After the denial of his suppression motion, Arthur entered a guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal on the suppression issue. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the denial of Arthur's motion to suppress and remanded the matter to the trial court, concluding that the police had not possessed a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop Arthur independent of the evidence seized from Walls. According to the Appellate Division, the search of Walls had been unlawful and, since the fruits of that search could not have been used to support a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity, the stop of Arthur had also been unlawful.
The Supreme Court the State's petition for certification.
HELD: The police had sufficient justification to carry out the investigatory stop of Christopher Arthur's car because the facts as observed by the police officer in light of his experience, apart from the drug paraphernalia seized from the passenger, objectively gave rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Arthur was engaged in illegal narcotics activity. Furthermore, the unlawful search of the passenger did not invalidate the otherwise objectively reasonable investigatory stop and search of Arthur.
1. Under Terry v. Ohio, police have a limited ability to conduct investigatory stops and protective searches of persons suspected of criminal activity. To determine whether the police conduct in conducting an investigatory stop violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure, courts must balance the need to search or seize against the invasion that the search or seizure entails. When determining if the officers' actions were reasonable, consideration must be given to the specific reasonable inferences that the officer is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his or her experience. Inarticulate hunches or an arresting officer's subjective good faith cannot justify an infringement of a person's Fourth Amendment rights. Rather, the officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion. (pp. 7-11)
2. The Appellate Division failed to give sufficient weight to the officer's knowledge and experience and to the rational inferences that could be drawn from the facts objectively and reasonably viewed in light of that expertise. Simply because a defendant's actions might have some speculative, innocent explanation does not mean that those actions cannot support articulable suspicions, if a reasonable person would find the actions are consistent with guilt. Thus, the trial court properly determined that the facts, apart from the drug paraphernalia seized from the passenger, as observed by Detective Smallwood in light of his experience, objectively gave rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Arthur was engaged in illegal narcotics activity. Thus, the stop of his car was justified. (pp. 11-13)
3. The Appellate Division determined that Arthur had standing to object to the illegal search of Walls. The court need not reach or resolve the issue of standing since it is satisfied that the investigatory stop of Arthur's vehicle can be based on grounds giving rise to an articulable and reasonable suspicion of criminal activity independent of the incriminating evidence seized from Walls. (pp. 13-16)
4. Under Terry, a limited exploratory search is permissible to preserve the safety of an officer if, under the circumstances, the officer reasonably believes that the suspect may be armed and dangerous. The purpose of the search is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to allow the officer to pursue the investigation without fear of violence. The officers did not believe that Walls was armed and dangerous. Thus, although Detective Smallwood's observations justified the investigatory stop of Walls, they did not justify the subsequent search of her person. Nevertheless, absent the evidence seized from Walls, the remaining facts, viewed objectively from the standpoint of an experienced and knowledgeable police officer, were sufficient to support an articulable and reasonable suspicion that Arthur had been engaged in criminal activity. Consequently, the unlawful search of Walls would not render illegal the otherwise objectively reasonable investigatory stop of Arthur. (pp. 16-19)
5. A driver may be ordered to exit his or her vehicle after a Terry stop. Here, the police acted appropriately when they ordered Arthur to exit his vehicle. Once he exited his vehicle, Arthur stated to detectives that he had "bottles," a commonly used street term for vials of cocaine. Arthur's explicit ...