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State v. Williams

July 12, 2007


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 381 N.J. Super. 572 (2005).


(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).

The issue before the Court is whether a defendant who resisted police and fled from a presumed unconstitutional investigatory stop and who was later arrested for obstruction is entitled to suppression of the handgun seized incident to his lawful arrest.

At around 2:00 a.m. on March 26, 2002, while on patrol in a marked car, Elizabeth police officer Paul McRae and his partner received a dispatch from headquarters that a black man wearing a black jacket was possibly selling drugs at 1025 Flora Street in the City of Elizabeth. The officers responded to the address and observed two black men wearing black jackets in front of the residence. One of the men walked away as the patrol car approached. Defendant, Marcellus Williams remained but, according to Officer McRae, seemed shocked an unnerved by the unexpected presence of the police. The officers did not pursue the man who left the scene because he did nothing to arouse their suspicion. The officers exited their vehicle and approached Williams to question him.

The neighborhood surrounding 1025 Flora Street was known to Officer McRae as an area rampant with weapons and drug-dealing offenses. He had made approximately 100 drug-related arrests in that area, and in about one-half of those cases, the suspects were armed with weapons. With that and other information in mind, Officer McRae asked Williams "to place his hands on top of his head" so that he and his partner could pat Williams down for their safety. In response, Williams pushed Officer McRae and fled. The officers pursued Williams and the chase ended quickly after Williams stumbled and fell to the ground. The officers arrested and handcuffed him and, while patting him down, found a handgun tucked in his waistband.

A Union County Grand Jury handed down two indictments against Williams, one charging him with third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and fourth-degree obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function, the other indictment charging him with second-degree possession of a weapon by a person previously convicted of a crime.

Williams filed a motion to suppress the handgun as evidence at trial, claiming that the seizure of the weapon was the product of an unconstitutional stop and search. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the facts were sufficient to justify the investigatory stop and pat-down of Williams under the standards set forth in Terry v. Ohio. The trial court also held that the officers seized the handgun incident to a lawful arrest for obstructing the administration of law pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1.

After a jury trial on the first indictment, Williams was convicted of the weapons possession charge, but acquitted of the obstruction charge. Following the verdict, Williams pled guilty to the charge of possessing a weapon by a person previously convicted of a crime on the second indictment. On that charge, the court sentenced Williams to a nine-year term of imprisonment with a five-year period of parole ineligibility. On the weapons possession charge, Williams was sentenced to a concurrent four-year term.

Williams appealed both the denial of his suppression motion and trial related issues to the Appellate Division, which reversed the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress, vacated the judgments of conviction, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings in light of the suppression of the handgun. In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division reasoned that the dispatch from headquarters alone did not provide the officers with a reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot and, therefore, the officers engaged in an unconstitutional investigatory stop. As such, Williams had a right to refuse to participate in the unlawful Terry stop and could not be lawfully arrested for fleeing from such an unlawful stop. According to the Appellate Division, the search and seizure of Williams was incident to an unlawful arrest, requiring the gun's suppression.

The Supreme Court granted the State's motion to stay the Appellate Division's opinion pending an appeal to this Court and later granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: Marcellus R. Williams' resistance and flight, which amounted to obstruction, broke the link in the chain between the initial unconstitutional investigatory stop and the later seizure of the handgun. Under such circumstances, suppression of the evidence is not warranted by the exclusionary rule.

1. An investigatory stop is valid only if it is based on specific and articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. During such a stop, if the police officer believes that the suspect may be armed and presently dangerous, then the officer may conduct a pat down. Here, the officers observed nothing to substantiate the report of possible drug dealing. The propriety of the investigatory stop is doubtful when viewed against both state and federal jurisprudence. However, the Court need not decide whether the officers acted without reasonable and articulable suspicion in attempting to conduct a pat down of Williams because it would not suppress the later discovery of the handgun even if the stop was unconstitutional. That is because Williams was obliged to submit to the investigatory stop, regardless of its constitutionality. Instead, he physically resisted and took flight, thereby endangering police, himself, and the public. In obstructing the officers, Williams committed a criminal offense, which led to his arrest and the discovery of the weapon incident to a lawful arrest. Obstructing the police constituted a break in the chain from the investigatory stop, which was presumably unconstitutional. The taint from that initial stop was significantly attenuated by Williams' criminal flight that caused the handgun's later seizure, and accordingly, the application of the exclusionary rule is unwarranted here. (Pp. 8-11)

2. Under State v. Crawley, a person has no constitutional right to flee from an investigatory stop even though a judge may later determine that the stop was unsupported by reasonable and articulable suspicion. Under New Jersey's obstruction statute, when a police officer commands a person to stop, or orders him to place his hands on his head for a pat-down search, that person has no right to take flight or otherwise obstruct the officer in the performance of his duty. 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 the obstruction statute. The suspect must avail themselves of judicial remedies if unlawfully detained, the result being the suppression of the evidence seized from him. In applying those principles here, the police officers had probable cause to believe that Williams had violated the obstruction statute by his physical resistance and flight. Moreover, the officers were acting ingood faith and under color of their authority, relying on information they obtained from dispatch when they initially approached Williams. Although the investigatory stop was unconstitutional, it cannot be concluded that the officers arbitrarily detained Williams, taking the matter out of the purview of the obstruction statute. (Pp. 11-16)

3. Under the exclusionary rule, the State is barred from introducing into evidence the "fruits" of an unlawful search or seizure by police. The overarching purpose of the rule is to deter police from engagingin constitutional violations by denying the prosecution the benefit of illicitly obtained evidence. A corollary purpose is to uphold judicial integrity by suppressing evidence, thereby sending a message that constitutional misconduct will not be tolerated. To balance those purposes with the concerns that the guilty may go free, the rule will not apply when the connection between the unconstitutional police action and the evidence becomes so attenuated as to dissipate the taint from the unlawful conduct. (Pp. 15-17)

4. In evaluating whether evidence is sufficiently attenuated from the taint of a constitutional violation, the Court looks to three factors: 1) the temporal proximity between the illegal conduct and the challenged evidence; 2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and 3) the flagrancy and purpose of the police misconduct. In this case, the first factor, which favors Williams, is substantially outweighed by the other two factors. In respect of the third factor, the officers may have acted mistakenly, but they acted in good faith and thus, their actions cannot be described as flagrant misconduct. The second factor is determinative. The law should deter and give no incentive to suspects who would endanger the police and themselves by not submitting to official authority. Williams' resistance to the pat down and flight from the police constituted an intervening act -- the crime of obstruction -- that completely purged the taint from the unconstitutional investigatory stop. Therefore, Officer McRae and his partner seized the handgun incident to a lawful arrest, which was properly admitted into evidence at trial. (Pp. 17-21)

Judgment of the Appellate Division ordering the suppression of the handgun is REVERSED and Williams' judgments of conviction are REINSTATED. The matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for consideration of those arguments raised by defendant on direct appeal that were not addressed in the panel's opinion.

JUSTICE WALLACE filed a separate concurring opinion, concurring in the result only, writing separately to note that he continues to adhere to his dissent in State v. Crawley where he stated that when police lack sufficient reliable information to conduct a valid investigatory stop, but could have conducted a field inquiry, a defendant's departure from the police encounter may not form the basis of a violation of the obstruction statute. In the present case, because Williams pushed the police officer, the police had probable cause to arrest and search him.

CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE filed a separate concurring opinion. JUSTICE LONG did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued March 6, 2007

In State v. Crawley, 187 N.J. 440, cert. denied, U.S. , 127 S.Ct. 740, 166 L.Ed. 2d 563 (2006), we determined that a defendant commits the crime of obstruction if he disobeys a police command and flees from an investigatory stop -- even an unconstitutional one. In this appeal, we must decide whether defendant who resisted and fled from a presumed unconstitutional investigatory stop and who was later arrested for obstruction is entitled to suppression of the handgun seized incident to his lawful arrest.*fn1

We now hold that defendant's resistance and flight, which amounted to obstruction, broke the link in the chain between the initial unconstitutional stop and the later seizure of the weapon. Under such circumstances, suppression ...

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