In State v. Nyema, 249 N.J. 509, 527 (2022), the Court addressed the question of whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed to conduct an investigatory stop of the vehicle in which the defendants were riding.
The only information provided in the dispatch to law enforcement officers was that the suspects of the robbery of a 7-Eleven store in Hamilton were two Black males, one of whom was armed with a gun, and who fled the robbery on foot. Id. at 514-15. While en route, a police officer used the mounted spotlight on his marked police car to illuminate the interior of passing vehicles to search for the suspects. Id. at 515. Approximately three-quarters of a mile from the store, he observed three Black males inside the second vehicle he encountered. Ibid.
Based on the race and sex of the occupants and the fact that they did not react to the spotlight, the officer executed a motor vehicle stop. Ibid. The officer subsequently arrested the defendants after learning that the vehicle had been reported stolen. Ibid. “A search of the car revealed dark clothing — clothes matching what the suspects were wearing during the robbery — and a handgun hidden under the hood of the car.” Ibid. The defendants were then charged with offenses related to the robbery of the 7-Eleven. Ibid.
Two of the defendants, Peter Nyema and Jamar Myers, jointly moved to suppress the items seized during the search of the vehicle on the basis that the stop was unlawful because it was not based on reasonable suspicion. Ibid. The trial court denied the joint motion to suppress. Ibid. In separate appeals, the defendants challenged the denial of the motion to suppress, resulting in opposite Appellate Division outcomes. Ibid. In State v. Myers, an Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress, ruling that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. Ibid. However, in State v. Nyema, a different Appellate Division panel reversed the trial court and vacated Nyema’s conviction and sentence, finding that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop of the car. Id. at 515-16.
The New Jersey Supreme Court granted both defendants’ petitions for certification on the question of whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed to stop the car. Id. at 516. The Court reversed the decision in State v. Myers and affirmed the decision in State v. Nyema. Ibid. The Court held that “[t]he only information the officer possessed at the time of the stop was the race and sex of the suspects, with no further descriptors. That information, which effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion, was insufficient to justify the stop of the vehicle and therefore does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.” Ibid.
In reaching that determination the Court explained that the exception to the warrant requirement at issue was “an investigative stop, a procedure that involves a relatively brief detention by police during which a person’s movement is restricted.” Id. at 527. “When police stop a motor vehicle, the stop constitutes a seizure of persons, no matter how brief or limited.” Ibid. “An investigative stop or detention, however, does not offend the Federal or State Constitution, and no warrant is needed, ‘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.’” Id. at 527 (quoting State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117, 126 (2002)). “Although reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause, ‘[n]either inarticulate hunches nor an arresting officer’s subjective good faith can justify infringement of a citizen’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.’” Id. at 527-28 (quoting State v. Stovall, 170 N.J. 346, 372 (2002) (Coleman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)). “In sum, the totality of the circumstances of the encounter must be considered in a very fact-sensitive analysis to determine whether officers objectively possessed reasonable and articulable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop.” Id. at 531.
Applying those principles to the facts in Nyema, and considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court found that the information the officer possessed at the time of the motor-vehicle stop did not constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion. Ibid. The Court concluded that:
Certainly, race and sex — when taken together with other, discrete factors — can support reasonable and articulable suspicion. But here, the initial description did not provide any additional physical descriptions such as the suspects’ approximate heights, weights, ages, clothing worn, mode of transportation, or any other identifying feature that would differentiate the two Black male suspects from any other Black men in New Jersey. That vague description, quite frankly, was “descriptive of nothing.” If that description alone were sufficient to allow police to conduct an investigatory stop of defendants’ vehicle, then law enforcement officers would have been permitted to stop every Black man within a reasonable radius of the robbery. Such a generic description that encompasses each and every man belonging to a particular race cannot, without more, meet the constitutional threshold of individualized reasonable suspicion.
[Id. at 531-32.]
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