William H. Mone reports on a recent decision from the Supreme Court of New Jersey, overturning the weapons possession convictions of two men based upon the arresting officers’ lack of “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity necessary to temporarily detain and search them.
One night in February 2014, two police officers responded to a noise complaint at a motel. The motel had a reputation for criminal activity, including narcotics distribution. As the officers entered the hallway of the motel, they heard loud music and multiple voices coming from one of the rooms. The police officers made contact with the occupants of the room and indicated that they were there in response to a noise complaint. The police observed about ten people in the room. After a brief conversation, the renter of the room apologized for the noise, invited the officers inside, and lowered the volume of the music.
The officers then asked the occupants of the room for their identification. The officers relayed the occupants’ information to their dispatch officer to check for outstanding warrants. One of the men in the room had an outstanding warrant and was placed under arrest. A search incident to that arrest revealed that the man had a handgun tucked into his waistband. The officers then informed the remaining occupants in the room that they would all be patted down for weapons. The pat-down of another man revealed that he also possessed a handgun. He too was placed under arrest.
At trial, the two men moved to suppress the handguns from evidence, arguing that they were revealed as the result of an unlawful search and seizure. After the trial court denied the motion, the men pled guilty to weapons charges and were sentenced to prison terms. The men appealed the denial of the motion to suppress. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding that the officers’ search of the first man was incident to his lawful arrest on the outstanding warrant and that the seizure and search of the second man were lawful as part of the “protective sweep” of the motel room after the discovery of the handgun on the first man. The men then appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey limited its inquiry as to whether the police were authorized to detain the men and conduct pat-down searches for weapons under the circumstances. The Court held that the police officers were not permitted to search the men incident to the noise complaint. The Court reasoned that because the occupants of the motel room lowered the volume of the music and the police decided not to issue summonses for the noise complaint, there was no further “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity to justify the police officers’ decision to further detain the occupants of the room for warrant checks. Therefore, the subsequent searches of the men and the discovery of the handguns were unconstitutional and the trial court should have granted the motions to suppress. The Court vacated the guilty pleas and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Please contact William H. Mone if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.