United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
matter comes before the Court on Defendant Iman Sears's
Motion to Suppress. ECF No. 23. On October 24, 2019, the
Court held oral argument and conducted an evidentiary hearing
during which Detective Stephen Dellavalle testified. For the
reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is GRANTED.
evening of September 29, 2018, Detectives Dellavalle and
Rivera, experienced officers with the Newark Police
Department, conducted proactive patrol in an unmarked Ford
Crown Victoria, in the City of Newark as part of a caravan.
The detectives wore plain clothes except for vests embossed
with the word “Police.”
11:40 p.m., Detective Dellavalle drove east in the westbound
lane of Evergreen Avenue from Ross Street toward 839
Frelinghuysen Avenue, a public housing complex listed as
Sears's home address. Def.'s Mot. Ex. D, ECF No.
23-4. Detective Dellavalle described the location as
“one of the highest crime areas in the City of
Newark.” While driving, Detective Dellavalle
“observed a male wearing all black, except for a white
T-shirt, walking away from 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue towards
Dellavalle's view of the courtyard in front of 839
Frelinghuysen Avenue was partially obstructed. Three vehicles
were parked on the north side of Evergreen Avenue as the
detectives drove by 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue, parallel to the
sidewalk. See Govt. Ex. 3. One of these vehicles was
a white van, parked where the walkway to 839 Frelinghuysen
Avenue meets Evergreen Avenue. Directly west of the walkway
is a light pole. Id. The courtyard in front of 839
Frelinghuysen Avenue contains various trees with full
foliage, a park bench surrounded by a wall on three sides,
various shrubs about four feet high, and a barred fence.
Although Detective Dellavalle's view from his Crown
Victoria was partially blocked or obscured by these
obstacles, he testified that he could “generally see
the walkway pretty well.”
Dellavalle observed Defendant Sears about 25 feet away from
his lowered driver's side window, and, because of
obstructions, was only able to observe the walkway to 839
Frelinghuysen Avenue for several seconds as he drove east on
Evergreen. Sears walked away from the building, down the
walkway towards Evergreen Avenue. Detective Dellavalle
testified that upon seeing the detectives' vehicle, Sears
stopped, turned around, allegedly “ma[d]e a quick
adjustment towards his waistband and continued walking
towards the building, ” and looked back over his
shoulder. The detectives' impression was that Sears
observed their vehicle and was “immediately
startled.” Govt. Ex. 1. Surveillance video does not
show that Sears was immediately startled. Instead, the video
shows that Sears turned around and walked towards the
described Sears's motion towards his waist as
“very, very subtle . . . you can't see a dramatic
motion; however, you can see a subtle adjustment in the video
[Govt. Ex. 3]. Very subtle.” Detective Dellavalle
testified that he saw Sears reach towards his waistband when
Sears was facing away from him, as his vehicle passed between
the light pole and white van parked in front of the walkway,
which Dellavalle estimated are about five to six feet apart.
See Govt. Ex. 3 at 23:42:57-60. Detective Dellavalle
stated that, “From behind [Sears], you could just see
him. From his arm by his side, to go to his waist real quick
and back out.” The surveillance video is inconclusive
as to whether Sears made a motion towards his waistline.
Rather, the video footage shows clearly that when Defendant
turned and started back towards 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue,
Sears lit and smoked a cigarette. Govt. Ex. 3 at 23:43:04-08.
Detective Dellavalle did not testify about this on direct
stated that these factors indicated that Sears was nervous,
but he also testified that he was too far away to observe
whether Sears was sweating or shaking. Detective Dellavalle
testified that Sears's stopping and turning around drew
his suspicion because “if someone is doing something
illegal and they see the police, they're going to stop
and go the other direction” and that “people that
carry guns will adjust [their waistbands] if they try to
Dellavalle testified that Sears's alleged stopping when
he saw the detectives' vehicle, turning around, making a
quick adjustment to his waist, and looking over his shoulder,
led the detectives to confront Sears. When the detectives
parked and exited their vehicle east of the parked white van,
they immediately “started running after [Sears] and . .
. yelled, ‘Police, stop, '” wearing vests
embossed with the word “police.” Dellavalle
testified that Sears saw them, and “sped up”
towards the door of 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue. Sears did not
respond to detectives' commands to stop immediately, but
instead “kept walking towards the door.” The
incident report states that prior to speaking to the
officers, “once at the entrance [of 839 Frelinghuysen
Avenue], Sears grabbed the door handle, but was unable to
gain entry.” The surveillance footage does not show
that Sears ever grasped the door handle or that he was unable
to gain entry. When the detectives reached Sears, he stopped,
turned towards them and said, “I ain't doing shit.
Leave me the fuck alone.” See Govt. Ex. 1.
When Dellavalle illuminated Sears's waistline with the
flashlight, “[Sears] turned the right side of his body
out and . . . bladed it away from me a little bit.”
the detectives got closer to Sears, he fled. Detective Rivera
tackled Sears “a couple feet away.” Detective
Dellavalle recalled that it was a “very quick”
chase. Sears resisted arrest and, with the help of other
responding officers, Detective Rivera was able to subdue him.
A search was conducted, and a handgun was found down his
right pants leg. Heroin and crack cocaine were also found on
his person. Sears was treated with broken ribs and a
collapsed lung. Surveillance video from two cameras at 839
Frelinghuysen Avenue showing the encounter, Government
Exhibits 3 and 4, was obtained on October 1, 2018. Govt. Ex
2. On April 1, 2019, Sears was charged in an indictment with
violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), 21 U.S.C. § 841, and
18 U.S.C. § 924(c).
moves to suppress the gun and drug evidence as fruits of an
unlawful search and seizure. “As a general rule, the
burden of proof is on the defendant who seeks to suppress
evidence.” United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d
242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995). Once the defendant establishes a
basis for his motion, the “burden shifts to the
government to show that the search or seizure was
reasonable.” Id. The government must prove by
a preponderance of the evidence that “each individual
act constituting a search or seizure under the Fourth
Amendment was reasonable.” United States v.
Ritter, 416 F.3d 256, 261 (3d Cir. 2005).
Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable
searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Police
encounters that do not involve coercion or detention do not
implicate the Fourth Amendment. United States v.
Brown, 765 F.3d 278, 288 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing
United States v. Williams, 413 F.3d 3347, 352 (3d
Cir. 2005) (officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment
“merely by approaching individuals on the street or in
other public places”)). “[A]n officer may,
consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief,
investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable,
articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.”
Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000).
Defendant argues that he was seized when detectives initially
ordered him to stop and began running towards him. Def.'s
Mot. at 8. There are two issues ...