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State v. Caldwell

June 17, 1999

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ERIC CALDWELL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi, J.

Argued January 20, 1999

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

In this appeal, we decide whether defendant's motion to suppress evidence seized at the time of his arrest was properly denied. More specifically, we consider whether his seizure by the police violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.

I.

At defendant's suppression hearing, Passaic County Sheriff's Department Detective Anthony Smith testified. He stated that on April 12, 1995, at approximately 9:00 p.m., he received a "beep" from a confidential informant. Detective Smith worked in the Warrant Division of the Sheriff's Department and had received reliable information from that informant over the past four and a half years. The informant told him that Curtis Stuart, who was wanted on a warrant, was standing in front of a multi-unit dwelling at 86 Butler Street, in Paterson, New Jersey. The informant told the Detective that Mr. Stuart was a black male but could not give a detailed physical description of him because he only "caught a glimpse of his face" and did not notice what type of clothes Mr. Stuart was wearing. Detective Smith had no personal knowledge of what Curtis Stuart looked like; he knew only that he purportedly was a black male standing outside of 86 Butler Street.

Due to the informant's credible history, Detective Smith acted on the tip and checked the active warrant sheet in his patrol car. The active warrant sheet contains all the names of individuals with outstanding warrants. On the night in question, over 1500 names were on the warrant sheet. The check verified that a warrant was outstanding for Curtis Stuart. However, unbeknownst to Detective Smith, the active warrant list was incorrect and the warrant for Curtis Stuart had been vacated ten months earlier on June 7, 1994. The warrant for Stuart was originally issued on June 6, 1994 for his failure to appear for trial. However, Stuart appeared in court the next day and the warrant was vacated. Stuart was eventually sentenced to four years in jail. On the day of defendant's arrest, Stuart had already been incarcerated for five days in the Passaic County Jail.

Acting on the informant's tip and his belief that the active warrant list was correct, Detective Smith proceeded to 86 Butler Street with Sergeant Ferrera and Detective Arcieri in an unmarked police unit. The officers arrived in front of the multi-unit dwelling within five minutes of receiving the page. As their vehicle approached the dwelling, the three officers saw a black male standing alone in front of the building. The black male was later identified as defendant, Eric Caldwell. Detective Smith pulled the vehicle directly in front of 86 Butler Street. When defendant saw the unmarked police car approaching, he turned, looked at them, and ran into the building. The officers exited the vehicle and ran toward the building. Defendant ran up the front steps and was a quarter of the way down the hallway when Detective Smith yelled, "stop, police, . . . don't run any more." Detective Smith testified that he "asked [defendant] to walk towards [his] direction, which [defendant] did." The officers had a clear view of the hallway and could see defendant the entire time.

Defendant immediately stopped upon hearing Detective Smith's command. He turned to face the police officers and, in the process, tossed an object from his right hand. Detective Smith explained at the suppression hearing that, "[a]fter I asked him to stop, he stopped, began to walk toward me and discarded something. . . . He turned and came-- As he turned, I seen (sic) him toss something." The defense attorney specifically asked Detective Smith, "Did he attempt to conceal the throw by any chance? . . . Did he do it specifically, overtly or was it a kind of movement to try and discard it without your knowledge?" Detective Smith answered, "Exactly, moving without my knowledge."

The object landed on the hallway floor in plain view of the three officers. Detective Arcieri detained defendant while Detective Smith retrieved the tossed object. Detective Smith found a large plastic bag containing sixty smaller plastic bags of crack cocaine. After retrieving the contraband, the detectives patted down defendant and handcuffed him. The pat-down uncovered seven more plastic bags filled with marijuana and $28 in cash. The officers then placed defendant under arrest and brought him to the squad room for processing. When asked by the defense attorney why he began to chase defendant, Detective Smith responded, "The reason I chased him was because of the information I received at that time. I observed him as the only male outside of the location, and he turned and ran away from me. Working Warrants, that's what individuals usually do, because they know they are going to jail. They run as soon as they see the car pulling up." The defense attorney continued, "So if another individual had been walking by, you would have chased that individual as well?" Detective Smith responded, "We might have detained him for I.D. purposes." On redirect, the prosecutor asked Detective Smith, "[I]f, when you had stopped Mr. Caldwell, he hadn't thrown the narcotics, produced identification to show he was Eric Caldwell, what would have happened to him?" The detective answered, "He would have been released right then."

Defendant was indicted for third degree possession of CDS (cocaine), N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1); third degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5 and 2C:35-7; fourth degree possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1) and b(12); and third degree possession of marijuana with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. He moved to suppress the evidence seized at the time of his arrest, contending that he had been subjected to an illegal search and seizure. The trial court, relying on State v. Tucker, 136 N.J. 158 (1994) and State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95 (1987), granted defendant's motion to suppress. The State appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court. On remand, defendant pled guilty to one count of possession of CDS with intent to distribute within a school zone. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment with a two-and-a-half year period of parole ineligibility. Defendant appealed, challenging the excessiveness of the sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's sentence.

We granted defendant's petition for certification, 156 N.J. 386 (1998), and now reverse.

II.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has held that even a brief detention can constitute a seizure. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1874, 20 L. Ed.2d 889, 903 (1968). "It must be recognized that whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has 'seized' that person." Id. In Terry, the Court recognized, for the first time, an exception to the requirement that Fourth Amendment seizures of individuals must be based upon probable cause. The Court explained that the intrusion in Terry was so much less severe than that involved in traditional arrests and therefore, it declined to broaden the concept of arrests to include such intrusions. Instead, the Court considered the stop-and-frisk intrusion as falling within the general rubric of police conduct.

Terry departed from the traditional Fourth Amendment analysis in two respects. First, it defined a special category of Fourth Amendment seizures so substantially less intrusive than arrests that the general rule requiring probable cause to make Fourth Amendment seizures reasonable could be replaced by a balancing test. Second, the application of this balancing test led the Court to approve this narrowly defined less intrusive seizure on grounds less rigorous than probable cause . . . [Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 209-210, 22 S. Ct. 2248, 2254, 60 L. Ed. 2d 824, 833 (1979).]

New Jersey courts have "long recognized that a temporary street detention based on less than probable cause may be constitutional." State v. Tucker, supra, 136 N.J. at 167; see also, State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 507 (1968) (holding that "particularized suspicion" that youth was engaged in criminal activity justified seizure.) In State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 477 (1998), we held that "when the intrusion on the individual is minimal, and the law enforcement interests outweigh the privacy interests infringed in a Terry encounter, a stop based on objectively reasonable and articulable suspicions, rather than upon probable cause, is consistent with the Fourth Amendment." The exception to the probable-cause requirement for limited seizures of the person recognized in Terry and its progeny rests on a balancing of competing interests to determine the reasonableness of the type of seizure involved within the meaning of "the Fourth Amendment's general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures." Id. at 392 U.S. at 20, 88 S. Ct. at 1879. We must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion. When the nature and extent of the detention are minimally intrusive of the individual's Fourth Amendment interests, the opposing law enforcement interest can support a seizure based on less than probable cause. ... The context of a particular law enforcement practice, of course, may affect the determination whether a brief intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests on less than probable cause is essential to effective criminal investigation." [United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703-704, 103 S. Ct. 2637, 2642-43, 77 L. Ed. 2d 110, 118-19 (1983).]

The Supreme Court recognized in Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 506, 103 S. Ct. 1319, 1329, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229, 242 (1983), that "there is [no] litmus-paper test for . . . determining when a seizure exceeds the bounds of an investigative stop." Therefore, in State v. Davis, supra, 104 N.J. at 504, we held that to determine the reasonableness of a specific investigatory stop under New Jersey law, the reviewing court must "evaluate the totality of circumstances surrounding the police-citizen encounter, balancing the State's interest in effective law enforcement against the individual's right to be free from unwarranted and/or overbearing police intrusions." Ibid. We recognized that "[n]o mathematical formula exists for deciding whether the totality of circumstances provided the officer with an articulable or particularized suspicion that the individual in question was involved in criminal activity." Id. at 505. The reviewing court must conduct a "sensitive appraisal" of the facts and decide if the officer's conduct tipped the constitutional scales in favor of suppression of the evidence. Ibid. The reviewing court must decide if the officer's observations, in "view of the officer's experience and knowledge, taken together with rational inferences drawn from those facts," warrant a "limited intrusion upon the individual's freedom." Id. at 504.

Against that background, we consider the officers' conduct as revealed by this record. Unquestionably, the officers intended to attempt an investigatory stop of the black male that they observed in front of 86 Butler Street and whom they suspected to be Curtis Stuart. Before any attempt at an investigatory stop occurred, Caldwell turned and ran into the building and down the hallway, pursued by the officers, and stopping only after Detective Smith shouted "stop, police, . . . don't run any more. It is clear that when the officers chased defendant into the building, commanding him to "stop," a seizure of defendant occurred, see U.S. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554, 64 L. Ed. 2d 497, 509, 100 S. Ct. 1870, ___ (1980), and that seizure constituted ...


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