On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(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).
[NOTE: This is a companion case to State v. Jose Pineiro (A-100-02), also filed today.]
In this case, the Court considers whether the State had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of Gregory Moore.
The sole witness at the suppression hearing was Detective Glen Abrams, a twelve-year veteran police officer assigned to the Narcotics Division of the Atlantic City Police Department. On June 6, 2000, at approximately 5:45 p.m., Detective Abrams and two other detectives, working undercover, were patrolling in an unmarked car in the area of North Carolina, Mansion, and Arctic Avenues in Atlantic City. Detective Abrams described the locality as a high crime area.
The detectives observed a group of approximately six people congregating in a vacant lot between Piggy's Bar and a delicatessen. The detectives parked three-quarters of a block away and conducted surveillance, using binoculars. Detective Abrams observed a man wearing a floppy hat leave the group and walk towards the rear of the delicatessen. Moore and another man left the group and joined the man in the floppy hat. Moore and his companion handed currency to that man and each received from him a small item in return, which they both immediately pocketed before returning to the group.
Believing he had just witnessed a drug transaction, Detective Abrams promptly drove his vehicle towards the group. When the detectives arrived, Moore placed his hand in his right pocket and began to walk away. Detective Abrams exited the car and approached Moore to arrest him. The detective informed Moore that he had observed him participating in a drug transaction and grabbed Moore's right arm. Moore removed his hand from his pocket to reveal two clear bags of white powdery substance that was later identified as cocaine. Another detective recovered a similar bag of cocaine from Moore's companion. The detectives were unable to locate the third man who they believed had sold the drugs to Moore and his companion.
The trial court denied Moore's motion to suppress the evidence. It credited the testimony of Detective Abrams and found that the police had probable cause to arrest and search Moore.
Following a jury finding of guilt on an unrelated robbery indictment, Moore pled guilty to possession of cocaine. Consistent with the plea agreement, the trial court imposed a five-year term, concurrent to the sentence on the robbery offense. Moore appealed the denial of his motion to suppress and the Appellate Division affirmed.
The Supreme Court granted Moore's petition for certification.
HELD Law enforcement officers had probable cause to arrest and to search and seize the evidence from Moore.
1. A warrantless search or seizure is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. Here, the State urges that the warrantless search of Moore was valid under the search incident to a lawful arrest exception. The standards for determining probable cause to arrest and probable cause to search are identical. A principal component of the probable cause standard is a well-grounded suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed. The totality of the circumstances test requires the court to make a practical, common sense determination whether, given all of the circumstances, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place. (pp. 4-7)
2. Based on Detective Abrams' experience and the factors present here - a neighborhood known for heavy drug trafficking, observations of three men moving away from a group to a vacant lot, and the exchange of money for small objects - it was reasonable for Detective Abrams to have a well-grounded suspicion that he had witnessed a drug transaction. Because the Court concludes there was probable cause to arrest ...