(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).
In this search and seizure case, the Court considers whether the police had reasonable and articulable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop of defendant.
Detective Stacey Williams of the Roselle Police Department obtained a search warrant for co-defendant Michael Futch's person, residence, and car. Police officer Barry Laraway (Laraway) was assigned to assist the narcotics unit in the surveillance of Futch's green Lexus as Futch was known for dealing drugs from his vehicle. Prior to the execution of the warrant, the police were engaged in surveillance of Futch when defendant, Wendell Mann, and his passengers, Wendell Conner and Jarrod Pringley, drove into a Wendy's parking lot in a blue GMC Yukon and parked next to Futch's car. At that point, defendant and Futch engaged in a brief conversation. Although no exchange was observed, the police believed a drug transaction was in progress and converged on the two men. Upon seeing the police, defendant ran towards the restaurant and refused to heed Laraway's commands ordering him to stop. Laraway pursued defendant through the restaurant and into the restroom. Inside the restroom, defendant entered a stall and attempted to flush items he removed from his waistband down the toilet. Laraway grabbed defendant from behind, pushed him aside, and reached into the bowl to retrieve three plastic bags, later determined to contain marijuana and ecstasy. Defendant, who had been restrained by another officer, was placed under arrest.
Laraway returned to defendant's vehicle, peered in the open window, observed additional suspected drugs, and arrested the passengers.
On September 1, 2008, a Union County grand jury indicted defendant for third-degree possession of cocaine, second-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, third-degree possession of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), second-degree possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute, third-degree hindering his own apprehension, fourth-degree hindering his own apprehension, and fourth-degree tampering with evidence. Co-defendants Conner and Pringley were also indicted.
Defendant moved to suppress the drugs. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the police had sufficient reasonable and articulable suspicion that a drug transaction was occurring to carry out an investigatory stop of defendant, and that the separate seizures of the drugs were lawful. Following the denial of his motion, defendant was tried and found guilty of all charges. The trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of seven years in prison. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, in an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the denial of defendant's motion to suppress. The panel concluded that, based solely on the brief conversation between defendant and Futch, "Laraway lacked an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion" to conduct an investigatory stop. The panel believed that Laraway's testimony supported a mere "hunch" of criminal activity that did not rise to the level of articulable suspicion. The panel also suppressed the drugs seized from the Yukon, holding them to be the fruits of the prior unlawful stop of defendant.
The Supreme Court granted the State's Petition for Certification.
HELD: The trial court fairly concluded that the police had reasonable and articulable suspicion to support an investigatory stop of defendant and that the seizure of drugs from both locations was lawful.
1. Recently, this Court reiterated that "an appellate court reviewing a motion to suppress must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record." State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007). Despite that deference, if the trial court's findings are so clearly mistaken "that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction," then the appellate court should review "the record as if it were deciding the matter at inception and make its own findings and conclusions." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). Of course, a reviewing court owes no deference to the trial court in deciding matters of law. (Pp. 7-8)
2. "Both the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures." State v. Amelio, 197 N.J. 207, 211 (2008). Whether the investigatory stop by the police is of a person or an automobile, such a seizure implicates our constitutional protections. A warrantless seizure is "presumptively invalid as contrary to the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions." State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 19 (2004). "Because our constitutional jurisprudence evinces a strong preference for judicially issued warrants, the State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement." Elders, supra, at 246. One such exception is denominated an investigatory stop or a Terry stop. Such a stop "is valid 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." Pineiro, supra, at 20. Because the "determination of reasonable [and articulable] suspicion is fact-sensitive," a careful review of the totality of the circumstances surrounding each case is required. Id. at 22. Further, the fact that a suspect's behavior may be consistent with innocent behavior does not control the analysis. Unless the totality of the circumstances satisfies the reasonable and articulable suspicion standard, the investigatory stop "is an unlawful seizure, and evidence discovered during the course of an unconstitutional detention is subject to the exclusionary rule." Elders, supra, at 247. (Pp. 8-11)
3. The facts and rational inferences underlying the trial court's finding that there were reasonable and articulable circumstances to support an investigatory stop are derived from officer Laraway's testimony and the Court is satisfied that the trial court's findings are amply supported by the record. As the trial court noted, several of the factors, standing alone, such as defendant's nervousness and his brief conversation with Futch, may not have been sufficient to establish a basis for an investigatory stop, but, as the circumstances compounded, they evidenced much more than nervousness and a casual conversation. Indeed, the fact that there was a search warrant for Futch's vehicle from which he was known to deal drugs was a key factor the trial court considered in determining that the police conducted a valid investigatory stop. The Court holds that the trial court fairly determined that the totality of the circumstances gave rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity. Thus, the police properly pursued defendant into the Wendy's restroom and lawfully seized the suspected drugs that defendant attempted to flush down the toilet. (Pp. 11-13)
4. Pursuant to the plain view exception to the warrant requirement, three elements must be satisfied: "First, the police officer must be lawfully in the viewing area; Second, the officer has to discover the evidence 'inadvertently,' meaning that he did not know in advance where evidence was located nor intend beforehand to seize it; Third, it has to be 'immediately apparent' to the police that the items in plain view were evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure." State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 236 (1983). Officer Laraway was lawfully standing outside the Yukon when he looked inside the open window and observed the suspected drugs; he did not possess advance knowledge that the drugs would be there; and, upon seeing the plastic bags on the seat, it was immediately apparent to Laraway, based on his training and experience, that the bags contained suspected drugs. Stated another way, Laraway was lawfully in the viewing area and, when he observed the drugs, he had probable cause to associate the bags of suspected drugs with criminal activity. The Court thus concludes that the plain view exception to the warrant requirement applies, and that Laraway's seizure of the drugs from the back seat of defendant's vehicle was lawful. (Pp. 13-15)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and defendant's convictions and sentence are REINSTATED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ...