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State v. Sloane

February 11, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SULAIMAN A. SLOANE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



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).

RABNER, C. J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal addresses two questions: whether, under the New Jersey Constitution, a passenger is seized during a motor vehicle stop; and whether police must have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to run a computer check in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database on the passenger.

Around midnight on November 11, 2003, Sherma Moore was driving a car registered to Therron Carmichael. Defendant, Sulaiman A. Sloane, who is Carmichael's nephew, was a passenger in a car. Officer Muzyka of the Carteret Police Department spotted Moore driving. From a prior incident, the officer thought Moore's license was suspended. After calling headquarters to confirm the suspension, the officer activated his overhead lights and initiated a stop.

Moore pulled into a parking spot across from Carmichael's residence. According to Officer Muzyka, both Moore and Sloane jumped out of the car and approached the officer's vehicle. Out of a concern for his own safety, the officer ordered Moore and Sloane back into the car. Both complied. The officer then asked Moore for credentials, confirmed her license was suspended, and ran her identification through the NCIC database. The officer found that a warrant had been issued for Moore's arrest, and he arrested her.

According to the officer, as he led Moore away from the vehicle, Sloane asked for the car keys to take to his uncle. The officer recalled Moore saying she did not want Sloane to have the keys. Before surrendering the keys to Sloane, the officer sought to confirm that he was a licensed driver, in case he chose to drive away. Sloane advised he did not have his license with him, but provided his name, date of birth, and social security number. Officer Muzyka entered this information into the motor vehicle database and learned that Sloane had a suspended license.

Either Officer Muzyka or Officer Simback, who arrived on the scene, ran Sloane's name through the NCIC database. There is no evidence that the NCIC check materially prolonged the length of the stop. The database revealed a parole violation and two outstanding warrants. Based on that information, Officer Muzyka arrested Sloane. In a search incident to arrest at headquarters, police found crack cocaine in Sloane's shoe.

Sloane was indicted on charges that included third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute and second-degree possession with intent to distribute near a public park. Sloane filed a motion to suppress the drugs, and the court denied the motion. Sloane pled guilty to third-degree possession of CDS, and was sentenced to three years' imprisonment with no period of parole ineligibility, to run concurrently with a sentence for a violation of parole.

Sloane appealed. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, vacated the judgment of conviction, and remanded for further proceedings. First, the panel ruled that Sloane was seized when the police validly stopped Moore. The panel found no error in the officer ordering Sloane back into the car as a safety precaution and then verifying whether Sloane had a valid driver's license. However, the panel concluded that once the officer learned that Sloane's license was suspended, the justification for his detention ended. Absent a reasonable or articulable suspicion that Sloane was engaged in any wrongdoing, the panel found it was impermissible to search the NCIC database. Without the results of the NCIC check, Sloane would not have been arrested and searched. Accordingly, the panel concluded that the evidence found following Sloane's arrest should have been suppressed.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: During a motor vehicle stop, the passenger, like the driver, is seized under the federal and state constitutions. Police do not need a reasonable suspicion before they may access the NCIC database and, because accessing the NCIC database was within the scope of the traffic stop and did not unreasonably prolong the stop, there was no basis to suppress the evidence found.

1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. A seizure occurs if, in view of all the circumstances, a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was not free to leave. When a police officer makes a traffic stop, the vehicle's driver is plainly seized. The United States Supreme Court recently held that a passenger of a car is seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when a police officer makes a traffic stop. The Court concludes that when a police officer conducts a traffic stop of a private vehicle, the passenger as well as the driver is seized under both the federal and state constitutions. Therefore, Sloane was seized at the time of the traffic stop. That determination does not end the inquiry because the ultimate standard in evaluating a seizure is reasonableness. Sloane concedes that the traffic stop of Moore was reasonable. When Sloane and Moore jumped out of the car and approached the officer, the officer ordered them back into the car. The officer's concerns for his own safety justified that reasonable command. Likewise, after Sloane asked for the keys to the car, it was reasonable for the officer to ask Sloane for identification to insure that he was a properly licensed driver. Up to this point, the Court finds nothing inappropriate in the conduct of the police. (pp. 7-11)

2. The Court turns next to the question whether the check of the NCIC database violated Sloane's constitutional rights. The NCIC database is a computerized database of criminal justice information available to law enforcement agencies nationwide. It was designed to help law enforcement locate fugitives and stolen property. Today it also contains information on missing persons, unidentified persons, and persons believed to be a threat. The NCIC is accessed more than five million times a day. Underlying those transactions is a concern for the safety of police officers, who are at risk when they approach individuals during a traffic stop. While an individual may wish to conceal an outstanding warrant, a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his fingerprints, photograph or matters of public record. In a related context, this Court has held that law enforcement may conduct random checks of a car's license plate number using a mobile data terminal. The Court reasoned that because license plate numbers are visible to the public, motorists have no expectation of privacy in them. The NCIC database is comprised of matters of public record such as arrest warrants and records of convictions. Because Sloane had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the public records maintained in NCIC -- namely, his two outstanding warrants and record of a parole violation -- a check of the database was not a search, and police did not need reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity to access that index. (pp. 11-17)

3. Because accessing the NCIC database was within the scope of the traffic stop and did not unreasonably prolong it, the Court holds that police acted within the boundaries of the federal and state constitutions throughout the traffic stop. Police conduct during a traffic stop must be evaluated within the context of unfolding events. Many jurisdictions have found that running an NCIC check, in addition to a driver's license check, is within the scope of a traffic stop and is permissible so long as it does not unreasonably extend the time of the stop. That rule has also been applied to NCIC checks of passengers when there was a basis for police to focus on the passenger. In this case, there is no evidence in the record that the check of the NCIC database unreasonably prolonged the detention. It appears that the check was conducted simultaneously or nearly simultaneously with the check of Sloane's license. That is not unusual in light of advances in technology. When law enforcement officers elect to conduct an NCIC check, they should act with dispatch to avoid prolonging a stop for more than a brief period of time. (pp. 17-20)

The Appellate Division's finding that a passenger is seized when police stop the car's driver is AFFIRMED. The Appellate Division's judgment that Sloane's motion to suppress should have been granted is REVERSED, and Sloane's conviction and sentence are REINSTATED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Rabner

Argued September 24, 2007

JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion. JUSTICE HOENS did not participate.

The police properly stopped a motor vehicle after confirming that its driver did not have a valid license. They later ran a check on the passenger in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which resulted in his arrest on outstanding warrants. Police found crack cocaine on him during a search incident to arrest.

We hold that at the time of the stop, the passenger, like the driver, was seized under the federal and state constitutions. We also hold that police do not need reasonable suspicion before they may access the NCIC database. Because the decision to check the NCIC database was within the scope of the traffic stop and did not unreasonably prolong the stop, there was no basis to suppress the evidence found.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant's ...


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