A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday reaffirmed the limits on the police to detain and search individuals in a case that began with a noise complaint at a Jersey Shore motel and ended with two men charged with weapons possession.
The decision further clarifies that police must have cause for holding and searching people when they don’t have a court-ordered warrant, even when they are investigating a complaint in an area known for criminal activity.
“It reiterates some really important principles and keeps the police honest,” said Tess Borden, who argued the case as a friend of the court for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “It’s really important for the Supreme Court to do that.”
Reaffirming principle of ‘reasonable suspicion’
Alison Perrone, the public defender who represented one of the men, said the ruling reaffirms “what has been a longstanding principle that police need to have reasonable suspicion to detain you and that can’t last an unreasonable amount of time.”
While these questions often come up during traffic stops, Perrone said that what was unique in this case was that the detention happened at a motel.
Neptune police responded to a noise complaint at the Crystal Inn motel late one night in February 2014 and asked the woman who had rented the room to turn down the music. She apologized and did so, according to court papers. Police did not issue a summons for a noise violation, but they did ask the 10 people in the room to provide identification. The officers relayed the information about each person to a dispatcher, who did a background check on each. The people were detained for about 20 minutes while the checks were completed.
Police let some of the people go after the checks cleared them. But they found an outstanding warrant against Deyvon Chisum, arrested and searched him and found a handgun. They then patted down those remaining in the motel room and found that Keshown Woodard also had a handgun and arrested him.
The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, saying the police had acted properly. Both men pled guilty to weapons possession, and each was sentenced to five years in prison and required to serve at least 3 ½ years before becoming eligible for parole. On appeal, the appellate division agreed with the trial court and found that police had acted properly in finding the weapons.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, stating that once the police decided not to issue a summons for the noise complaint, their work was over. The justices cited protections in the state constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“The police officers’ decision to continue to detain all ten occupants of the motel room after the ultimate determination was made not to issue any summonses for a noise violation was unconstitutional,” wrote Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina for the court. “The investigative detention in this instance, like all investigatory detentions, required that the officers reasonably and particularly suspected that the occupants in Room 221 engaged in, or were about to engage in, some form of criminal activity … Because the officers exercised their own discretion and declined to issue a summons for a noise violation, they essentially concluded that the occupants of Room 221 were not engaging in any criminal activity.”
The justices did not agree with the lower courts’ rulings that detaining the room’s occupants to check for warrants was justified because Neptune police check the identities of all those involved in police calls as a matter of course. They said they do this because they might have to return to follow up if another complaint comes in.
Motel’s bad reputation
They also disputed the contention from the prosecutor that because the motel was known for prior criminal activity, including drugs, burglaries, robberies, and homicides, police were right to feel concerned for their safety and to pat down the occupants they had detained to ensure they did not have weapons after they found Chisum had a gun.
“The court reaffirmed that your constitutional rights survive no matter where you are,” said Perrone, the public defender.
Borden called it “pretextual policing,” when police detain and conduct pat downs “whether or not there is reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity. It has most often been a complaint in traffic stops, when police pull over a driver for a minor motor vehicle infraction and use that as an excuse to look for more serious legal violations. But as the motel case demonstrates, it can happen in other instances.
Questions of racial bias were also raised in the case, as all the people detained were black. The ACLU’s brief had urged the court “to recognize the role of implicit bias in officers’ on-scene decision-making and to not perpetuate such bias by condoning the police practices in this case.” While the question of racial bias was raised during oral arguments last October, the court ruling does not touch on that issue.
The Supreme Court ordered the men’s guilty pleas to be withdrawn and sent the cases back to trial court for further proceedings.