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State v. Rodriguez

May 15, 2002

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
RAUL RODRIGUEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 336 N.J. Super. 550 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue in this appeal is whether the police subjected defendant to an investigative detention prior to their search of his person and, if so, whether they had a sufficient basis to justify that conduct.

On July 14, 1998, New Jersey Transit Police Officers Eugene Oberfrank and Kevin Amberg were patrolling the bus terminal in Atlantic City. Oberfrank received an anonymous telephone call informing him that two men would be traveling through Atlantic City via bus following a trip to Philadelphia to purchase narcotics.

The informant described the physical appearance of the two men and their clothes. The informant did not indicate which bus nor what time they would be arriving, only that the two men had left Ocean City at a specified time and that they would be returning that same day. At about 4:45 p.m., the officers spotted two men fitting the informant's description. Other than matching the description, the officers observed nothing unusual about them. Oberfrank and Amberg, dressed in full uniform, with weapons, handcuffs, mace and radios, "asked" the two men if they would agree to speak with them and go with them to the patrol office. The men consented. The officers asked no questions until they had the two men in the office, which had self-locking doors, in separate rooms. The two men were asked if they had anything on them that they shouldn't have and they replied "no."

Subsequently, Amberg asked the two men if they would consent to a search of their person and, after summarizing the contents of a consent-to-search form, he had them sign the forms. Defendant signed form at 4:55 p.m. The officers proceeded to search the men and a blue bag defendant was carrying. The officers found that defendant was carrying packets of heroin on himself and in the blue bag, a hypodermic syringe, and $630 in cash. Defendant was arrested at approximately 5:10 p.m. and advised of his Miranda rights. The two men were indicted for possession of a controlled dangerous substance, possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute within a thousand feet of a school.

At trial, defendant moved to suppress the evidence. The trial court denied that motion. Defendant pled guilty to possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute within a thousand feet of a school.

He was sentenced to an extended term of six years with three years of parole ineligibility. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the officers had engaged in a field inquiry requiring no suspicion of criminal activity. The court also held, alternatively, that even if the inquiry had escalated to an investigative stop, the officers had sufficient information to justify it, and that defendant had voluntarily waived his right to withhold consent.

HELD: Defendant was the subject of an investigative detention and the totality of the circumstances did not justify it.

1. Not all police-citizen encounters constitute searches and seizures for purposes of the warrant requirement. A field inquiry is a limited form of police inquiry and is not considered a seizure unless a reasonably objective person feels that his or her right to move has been restricted. (Pp. 8-9)

2. An investigative stop is more intrusive than a field inquiry and is justified when there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, based on "specific and articulable facts." An anonymous tip, standing alone, is rarely sufficient to establish a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Police must verify that an anonymous tip is reliable by some independent corroborative effort. The analysis in any given case turns ultimately on the "totality of the circumstances." (Pp. 9-11)

3. Defendant was questioned in a manner that presupposed criminal activity, as evidenced by his being isolated from his traveling partner and questioned in a closed-door, police-dominated atmosphere. Moreover, there was no justification for moving the defendant from the street to the patrol office. Under the totality of the circumstances, defendant could not have believed that he was free to leave; the police encounter had escalated and moved beyond a field inquiry. (Pp. 12-14)

4 The only information provided by the informant and corroborated by the officers was the description of defendant and his companion and their location at the bus terminal. Without more, corroboration of these "benign" elements is not sufficient to justify the detention under Terry and our analogous case law. (Pp. 14-18)

5. In view of our conclusion that the officers lacked a sufficient basis to detain defendant, we need not evaluate whether his consent to the search was voluntary. The illegal detention voids the consent. As a result, the fruits of the warrantless search must be suppressed. (Pp. 18-19)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA, and ZAZZALI, join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion.

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

Argued February 26, 2002

This case implicates defendant's right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under the analogous provision of our State Constitution. We must determine whether the police subjected defendant to an investigative detention prior to their search of his person and, if so, whether they had a sufficient basis to justify that conduct. The lower courts found no constitutional violation. We hold that defendant was the subject of an investigative detention and, further, that the totality of circumstances did not justify it.

I.

These are the relevant facts, derived largely from a suppression hearing conducted by the trial court. On July 14, 1998, New Jersey Transit Police Officer Eugene Oberfrank and a fellow officer, Sergeant Kevin Amberg, were patrolling the bus terminal in Atlantic City. At about 2:15 p.m., Officer Oberfrank received a telephone call from an unknown male. The caller informed the officer that two men had left Ocean City to go to Philadelphia to purchase narcotics and that they would be returning that same day via Atlantic City.

The caller described one man as a thin, Hispanic male, about five feet, ten inches tall, wearing white shorts, a white tee shirt, and gold-rimmed glasses. The caller described the second man as a white, heavyset male, six feet tall, with a receding ...


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