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State v. Handy

April 26, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
GERMAINE A. HANDY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 412 N.J. Super. 492 (2010).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Argued December 1, 2010

Long, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

The issue in this appeal is whether evidence uncovered during a search incident to an arrest should be suppressed because the arrest was based on incorrect information about the existence of a warrant that was provided by police dispatch to an officer in the field.

Police stopped Germaine A. Handy and others for riding their bicycles on the sidewalk in violation of a city ordinance. Because they did not have identification, Officer Drogo asked for their names and birthdates. Handy spelled out his name, gave his address in Millville, and provided his date of birth, March 18, 1974. When Officer Drogo radioed dispatch with this information, the dispatcher informed him that there was an outstanding warrant for Handy. Based on that information, Officer Drogo arrested him, and a search incident to the arrest uncovered cocaine. Officer Drogo later discovered that the ten-year-old warrant had been issued to Jermaine O. Handy of Los Angeles, California, and it listed the birth date as March 14, 1972. Officer Drogo left a voicemail with the court that had issued the warrant, but he received no reply. Handy was charged with drug offenses and released.

Handy moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police acted unreasonably in linking him to the warrant. The trial court denied the motion. The court found that the dispatcher was aware of the discrepancies and acted unreasonably, but that the more important factor was that Officer Drogo acted reasonably in light of the information given to him. Handy pled guilty and was sentenced. On appeal of the denial of his suppression motion, the Appellate Division reversed. State v. Handy, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued December 1, 2010

Germaine A. Handy was arrested as a result of incorrect information regarding the existence of a warrant, conveyed by a police dispatcher to an officer who had stopped Handy for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in violation of a city ordinance. At issue before us is whether evidence uncovered in the ensuing search should be suppressed. We answer that question in the affirmative. The dispatcher had, in hand, a ten-year-old warrant for a California resident that did not match the spelling of Handy's name and bore a different date of birth, yet she advised the officer on the scene that there was an outstanding warrant for Handy. That conduct by the dispatcher, an integral link in the law enforcement chain, was objectively unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution, requiring suppression of the evidence.

I.

On September 13, 2005, at approximately 7:40 p.m., Millville Special Officer Anthony Sills stopped a group of individuals for riding their bicycles on the sidewalk, in violation of a city ordinance. Officer Sills called for back-up and Officer Carlo Drogo, who was on routine patrol, responded. Because none of the bicyclists had identification, Officer Drogo asked for their names and dates of birth.

Defendant, Germaine A. Handy, was one of the individuals questioned by Officer Drogo. He provided his name as Germaine Handy, which he spelled out, along with his address -- 218 East Broad Street, Millville, New Jersey, and his date of birth --March 18, 1974. Officer Drogo recorded Handy's information and radioed police dispatch with Handy's name and date of birth for a warrant check. The police dispatcher informed Officer Drogo that there was an outstanding warrant for Handy. Based on that information, Officer Drogo placed Handy under arrest and handcuffed him.

A search incident to the arrest led to the recovery of drugs. Subsequently, the police dispatcher informed Officer Drogo that there was a discrepancy between the date of birth Handy had given (March 18, 1974) and the date of birth listed on the warrant (March 14, 1972).

When Officer Drogo arrived at headquarters with Handy he attempted to verify the existence of the warrant himself. In doing so, he ascertained that, in addition to the birth date discrepancy, the warrant, which was about ten-years old, had been issued to Jermaine O. Handy with an address on W. 73rd Street in Los Angeles, California.

Officer Drogo then called the Chesterfield Township Municipal Court which had issued the warrant, reached an automated voicemail, left a message, but did not receive a reply. In light of what he had learned, Officer Drogo did not process Handy on the warrant, presumably because he concluded that Handy was not the subject of the warrant; instead, he charged him with the drug offenses and subsequently released him.

Cumberland County Indictment No. 05-12-1153 charged Handy with one count of third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (cocaine) in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). Handy moved to suppress the evidence against him on the ground that the police acted unreasonably in linking him to the warrant. The State countered that the arresting officer was entirely reasonable in relying on the police dispatcher.

The trial court denied Handy's motion and, in ruling, found, as a matter of fact, that the dispatcher was aware of the discrepancies between the warrant and the information conveyed by Officer Drogo. Although the trial court characterized the dispatcher's actions as unreasonable, it noted that the more important factor was that the arresting officer's actions were entirely reasonable in light of the information presented to him.

Handy ultimately entered a plea to the indictment and to an unrelated indictment. He was sentenced in accordance with the plea agreement to an aggregate three-year term. Thereafter, he appealed the denial of the suppression motion. The Appellate Division reversed. State v. Handy, 412 N.J. Super. 492, 494 (App. Div. 2010). In ruling, the panel agreed with the trial court that the police dispatcher acted unreasonably when she conveyed the warrant information to Officer Drogo, despite substantial discrepancies, and that Officer Drogo was entirely reasonable in his response. Id. at 494, 504. The panel parted company from the trial court in connection with the ultimate question of whether the reasonableness of the arresting officer somehow insulated the search from suppression and rejected the State's contention that the deterrent effect of suppression based on the dispatcher's conduct would be minimal. Id. at 504. Judge Waugh, writing for the panel, said:

Here, the police were responsible, through the unreasonable actions of the police dispatcher, for conveying incomplete and inaccurate information to the arresting officer. If the citizens' right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is to be vindicated, then the exclusionary rule must be applied beyond the officer in the field and to the police employee who acts unreasonably in supplying critical, but inaccurate or incomplete, information under circumstances such as those before us. [Ibid.]

The State sought certification, which we granted. State v. Handy, 203 N.J. 95 (2010). We now affirm.

II.

The State argues that: the conduct of both the arresting officer and the dispatcher was entirely reasonable; even if the dispatcher's conduct is deemed unreasonable, the evidence should not be suppressed because the exclusionary rule is only triggered by police action that is deliberate, reckless, or systemic; and, in this case, the goal of deterrence would not be advanced by suppressing the evidence against Handy.

Handy counters that the Appellate Division was correct in: viewing the police dispatcher as part of the police department family; characterizing her conduct as objectively unreasonable; attributing her unreasonable actions to the department as a whole; and suppressing the evidence under the exclusionary rule.

III.

In reviewing a motion to suppress, an appellate court "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) (quoting State v. Elders, 386 N.J. Super. 208, 228 (App. Div. 2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted). A trial court's findings should not be disturbed simply because an appellate court "might have reached a different conclusion were it the trial tribunal." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). However, a trial court's legal conclusions are not afforded such deference; appellate review of legal determinations is plenary. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Here, the trial court's factual findings, in particular that the dispatcher was aware of the discrepancies between the warrant and what Officer Drogo had told her, were accepted by the Appellate Division and we adopt them as well. What is before us is purely a legal question: whether those facts warrant suppression.

IV.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States ...


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