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State v. Crawley

July 24, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
SALEEM T. CRAWLEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

Shortly after midnight on March 15, 2002, Newark Police Officers Paul Williams and Matthew Milton received a radio dispatch reporting that there was a man armed with a gun at the Oasis Bar on South Orange Avenue. The dispatcher described the suspect. Fewer than two minutes later, while driving westbound on South Orange Avenue toward the bar, the officers observed a man walking eastbound "at a semi-brisk pace." The man, later identified as Saleem Crawley, exactly matched the dispatcher's description of the suspect.

Without activating the patrol car's siren or overhead lights, the officers made a u-turn and approached Crawley from behind. As the car pulled alongside Crawley, Officer Williams called out, "Police. Stop. I need to speak with you." In response, Crawley turned and began running. Officer Williams pursued on foot, while Officer Milton circled the block in the car.

Officer Williams testified that Crawley threw an object to the ground in a parking lot as he was running. The officer picked up what was a bag and resumed pursuit. Eventually, Officer Williams cornered Crawley at an apartment building stairwell and arrested him. A field test of the contents of the bag disclosed cocaine.

Crawley's version of events was different. He testified that he was walking on South Orange Avenue after leaving a friend's house when a patrol car made a u-turn. Both officers jumped out of the car with their guns drawn, and because he was frightened, he ran. Crawley denied discarding any drugs.

Crawley was charged with four different disorderly persons offenses. The Municipal Court judge found him guilty of obstructing police officers in the lawful performance of their duties and sentenced him to a one-year probationary term. In a trial de novo before Superior Court Judge John C. Kennedy, Crawley argued that the police officers did not have a reasonably suspicion to make the stop and therefore his flight could not be the basis for a conviction. Judge Kennedy affirmed the conviction, holding that the actions of the officers were "objectively reasonable."

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed Crawley's conviction but did so on the ground that the officers' stop of Crawley was constitutionally based on a reasonable suspicion. Therefore, the officer's arrest of Crawley was lawful under the obstruction statute.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification.

HELD: The Court does not need to resolve whether the investigatory stop in this matter was reasonable under the Federal and State Constitutions because it has concluded that under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1, a police officer acting in objective good faith on a dispatch from headquarters may be "lawfully performing an official function" even if a court later determines that reasonable suspicion was lacking to justify the stop.

1. The central issue in this case is whether the police officers were "lawfully performing an official function" when they commanded Crawley to stop. Because the parties dispute the meaning of those words, the Court must determine what the Legislature intended when it enacted N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1. (pp. 10-12)

2. The Court is persuaded that the Legislature, in enacting the current version of the statute, did not intend that a person involved in a police encounter should have an incentive to flee or resist, thus endangering himself, the police, and the innocent public. The Court believes that the Legislature intended that when a police officer is acting in good faith and under color of his authority, a person must obey the officer's order to stop and may not take flight without violating N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1. (pp. 12-14)

3. The paramount goal in statutory interpretation is to divine the intent of the Legislature. First, this entails looking at the plain language of the act. When necessary, the Court then looks to the legislative history and related statutes for guidance. In construing a statute the Court attempts to capture the essence of the law -- its logic, sense, and spirit -- to achieve a result contemplated by the Legislature. (pp. 14-15)

4. The Court has reviewed related statutes, including those that make it a crime to resist arrest, elude the police, or escape, and has concluded that either in their express language or by judicial construction, the acts declare that a defendant does not have the right to commit those crimes in response to an unconstitutional stop or detention. For compelling public safety reasons, the statutes and interpretative case law require that a defendant submit to an illegal detention and that he take his challenge to court. The same public policy concerns underlying those statutes apply equally to the obstructing statute. (pp. 16-21)

5. The Court does not believe that the Legislature intended to protect police officers and the public when flight is from an attempted arrest or motor vehicle stop, but not from an attempted investigatory stop. Crawley's refusal to obey the officer's command to stop set off a chase -- along with the attendant danger of escalating violence -- that was no different than if he had disobeyed a command to submit to an arrest. A person has no constitutional right to endanger the lives of the police and public by fleeing or resisting a stop, even though a judge may later determine that the stop was unsupported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion. (pp. 22-26)

6. A suspect who is the subject of an arrest, a motor vehicle stop, or an investigatory stop is not privy to the information motivating the police action. Therefore, while on the street, the suspect is in no position to challenge the information possessed by the police. The suspect may in fact have committed no offense, but the proper forum to challenge supposed unlawful police conduct is in court. (pp. 26-27)

7. In summary, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 makes it a crime to obstruct a police officer "lawfully performing an official function by means of flight." Viewing the statute in relation to the resisting arrest, eluding, and escape statutes, the Court construes the quoted phrase to mean a police officer acting in good faith, under color of law in the execution of his duties. (pp.28-29)

8. Officers Williams and Milton were "lawfully performing an official function." The Court sees nothing unreasonable about the steps taken by those officers. The failure to act would have constituted a dereliction of duty. (pp. 29-30)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE WALLACE has filed a separate DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICE LONG joins. He would reverse the conviction. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the police lacked an articulable suspicion to perform a valid investigatory stop. Although the police could have conducted a field inquiry, there is no lawful requirement that an individual acquiesce to questioning. Standing alone, flight is not a violation of the obstruction statute. Moreover, contrary to the majority's position, he finds no justification to impose a good faith exception.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE has filed a separate dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE LONG joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued February 15, 2006

In this case, two police officers on patrol received a dispatch from headquarters that a person was armed with a gun outside a bar. Minutes later, near the bar, the officers sighted a man matching the description given in the dispatch and ordered him to stop for questioning. Instead, the man, later identified as defendant Saleem T. Crawley, ran. After an intense pursuit, the officers arrested defendant. Defendant was convicted of the disorderly persons offense of obstructing "a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by means of flight." N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a). Defendant claims in this appeal that because the officers engaged in an unconstitutional investigatory stop, the officers were not "lawfully performing an official function," and therefore he should have been found not guilty.

In upholding defendant's conviction, the Appellate Division determined that the investigatory stop was constitutional, finding that the officers acted based on "a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity." We affirm, but for different reasons. We conclude that in relying on the dispatch from headquarters the officers were "lawfully performing an official function" when they commanded defendant to stop. Defendant's obligation to comply with that command did not depend on how a court at some later time might decide the overall constitutionality of the street encounter. Because the officers acted in good faith and under color of their authority, defendant violated the obstructing statute when he took flight, thus endangering himself, the police, and the public.

I.

At defendant's trial in Newark Municipal Court, the State presented its case through the testimony of Newark police officers Paul Williams and Matthew Milton. Shortly after midnight on March 15, 2002, while on patrol in a marked police car, Officers Williams and Milton received a radio dispatch reporting that there was a man armed with a gun at the Oasis Bar located on South Orange Avenue in Newark.*fn1 The dispatcher described the suspect as a young black male, 5'5" to 5'7" tall, weighing about 150 pounds, and wearing a green jacket, red shirt, blue jeans, and black boots. Less than two minutes later, while traveling westbound on South Orange Avenue toward the bar, the two uniformed officers observed defendant walking eastbound "at a semi-brisk pace" with his hands in his jacket pockets. Defendant matched exactly the dispatcher's description of the suspect. Officer Williams referred to that part of South Orange Avenue as "[a] very high narcotics area," and to the Oasis as a "notorious bar" known for "[a] lot of weapons offenses."

Without activating the patrol car's siren or overhead lights, the officers made a U-turn and approached defendant from behind. As the patrol car pulled up alongside defendant, Officer Williams rolled down the passenger side window and called out, "Police. Stop. I need to speak with you."*fn2 In response, defendant "immediately turned and just started running." Officer Williams then pursued defendant on foot, while Officer Milton circled the block in the patrol car. Williams chased defendant through a parking lot and to an apartment complex, where defendant threw an object to the ground. Williams picked up the object, a small plastic bag, and resumed the pursuit, eventually cornering defendant at the bottom of an apartment complex stairwell. There, for the first time, the officer drew his gun. Williams arrested defendant, but found no weapon on him. The small plastic bag discarded earlier by defendant held twelve smaller plastic bags containing a white powder. A field test conducted by the officers indicated that the powder was cocaine.

Defendant gave an entirely different account of that evening's events. He testified that after leaving the home of a friend, he was walking down South Orange Avenue, when the patrol car made a U-turn. He claimed that both officers "jumped out" of the vehicle with their guns drawn, and because he was frightened, he ran. He denied that he discarded drugs.

II.

A.

Defendant was charged with four disorderly persons offenses: possessing and failing to deliver a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) to a law enforcement officer, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(c); possessing drug paraphernalia, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:36-2; loitering for purposes of obtaining or selling a CDS, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2.1; and obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1.

At defendant's trial, the prosecutor presented only the empty outer bag discarded by defendant and none of the smaller bags allegedly containing cocaine, which apparently were lost. As a result, at the end of the State's case, the municipal court granted defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal on the failing to deliver and loitering charges. In rendering its final verdict, the court found defendant guilty of obstructing the police officers in the lawful performance of their duties and not guilty of possessing drug ...


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