In State v. Goldsmith, 251 N.J. 384, 390 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that “the information the officers possessed at the time of the stop did not amount to specific and particularized suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity,” and therefore the “officers did not have reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate an investigatory detention of defendant.”

In Goldsmith, two police officers were patrolling an area in Camden that they “believed to be a ‘high-crime area’ known for shootings and drug dealing,” when they observed two individuals standing in front of a vacant house.  Id. at 389.  When the officers exited their vehicle, the two individuals walked away.  Ibid.   At the same time, the defendant exited the walkway that led to the rear of the vacant house.  Ibid.  The officer testified at the suppression hearing that based on his training, 20 years of experience, and his belief that the vacant house was used for the sale of drugs and weapons, he “found it suspicious that defendant was on the walkway next to the vacant house and believed defendant was engaged in drug dealing activity.”  Ibid.  The officers approached the defendant, blocked his path, and questioned him.  Ibid.  The defendant “became nervous,” “looked up and down the street,” and was “sweating, and his hands began to shake.”  Ibid.  The defendant provided the officers with a name and informed them that his identification was in his jacket pocket. Ibid.

“Because defendant’s demeanor made him nervous,” the officer “told defendant that he would retrieve the identification from defendant’s pocket.”  Ibid.  At that point, the defendant said, “I appreciate if you guys didn’t pat me down,” arousing the officer’s “suspicions even further.”  Ibid.  Due to his belief that defendant was engaged in drug activity and on the basis of the nervous behavior he exhibited, the officer patted the defendant down for weapons and retrieved a handgun.  Ibid.  After his arrest, the police later found currency and drugs in baggies on the defendant.  Ibid.  A search of the walkway adjacent to the abandoned house revealed drugs in baggies that were the same color as the ones found on the defendant.  Ibid.

The defendant moved to suppress the gun and the drugs, arguing that both the stop and the frisk were unlawful because they were not based on reasonable suspicion.  Ibid.  The trial court granted the motion, finding the stop was lawful but that the frisk was unlawful, and suppressed the evidence “as fruit of the poisonous tree.”  Id. at 390.  The Appellate Division granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and reversed, finding that the frisk was objectively reasonable “based on the totality of the circumstances — including defendant’s presence in a high-crime area and his behavior and body language.”  Ibid.  The Appellate Division did not address the lawfulness of the initial stop.  Ibid.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, and reinstated the trial court’s suppression order.  Ibid.  The Court set forth that “[u]nder both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, ‘searches and seizures conducted without warrants issued upon probable cause are presumptively unreasonable and therefore invalid.’”  Id. at 398 (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 246 (2007)).   The exception to the warrant at issue in Goldsmith was “an investigative stop, also known as a Terry stop, which is a procedure that involves a relatively brief detention by police during which a person’s movement is restricted.”  Id. at 399.  An investigative stop does not offend the Federal or State Constitution, and does not require a warrant, “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 399 (quoting State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117, 126 (2002) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968)).   Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause, however, inarticulate hunches and an officer’s subjective good faith cannot justify infringement of a citizen’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.  Id. at 399.

The inquiry as to whether reasonable and articulable suspicion exists for an investigatory stop is based on the totality of the circumstances and it takes into consideration numerous factors, including an officer’s experience and knowledge.   Id. at 399.  Importantly, although the reputation of an area may be relevant to the totality of the circumstances analysis, the Court stressed that “[j]ust because a location to which police officers are dispatched is a high-crime area does not mean that the residents in that area have lesser constitutional protection from random stops.” Id. at 400 (quoting State v. Chisum, 236 N.J. 530, 549 (2019)).

The Court in Goldsmith reaffirmed that it continued “to view the impact of previous crimes in the same area as a police encounter as a factor to be considered in the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a stop was based on reasonable suspicion.”  Id. at 403.  However, the “State must do more than simply invoke the buzz words ‘high-crime area’ in a conclusory manner to justify investigative stops.”  Id. at 404.  The Court in Goldsmith found that the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing “provided nothing more than a general description of a high-crime neighborhood, noting it is well known for weapons, shootings, and drug sales.”  Ibid.  The officer simply noted that he had seen five to ten drug sales on that block, presumably over the course of his twenty years as an officer but did not provide a timeline or context for the drug sales, nor did he indicate the approximate number of fugitives he had arrested in the area or provide a timeline during which those arrests occurred.  Id. at 404-05.   The Court found that this “vague testimony fell short of providing factual support for his conclusory statement that the area was high crime.”  Id. at 404.

Moreover, the Court found that even if the officer had provided more information regarding the prevalence of crime in the area, it would have been insufficient to justify the investigatory stop because the other factors were also “insufficient — even when taken together — to form a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity.”  Id. at 405.  The facts relied on by the officer for the investigatory stop, namely that the defendant was on a walkway next to a vacant house, “was information that could be used to justify the stop of virtually anyone, on any day, and at any time, based simply on their presence on that street.”  Id. at 406.  The officer simply “had a hunch that defendant was engaged in criminal activity.  That hunch, however, did not amount to objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion for an investigatory stop.”  Id. at 406.  Lastly, the Court set forth that because it because it held “that the officers’ investigatory detention of defendant was unlawful,” it did not “reach the issue regarding whether officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion to frisk defendant.”  Id. at 406.

State v. Goldsmith, 251 N.J. at 384, is a significant new case that holds that the State must do more than simply invoke the buzz words “high-crime area” in a conclusory manner to justify investigative stops.  It is critically important that a criminal defense attorney understands this new law and how it affects your rights.  If you are facing criminal charges you should immediately reach out to our team of experienced former prosecutors to schedule a free case review with one of our expert criminal defense attorneys. A complete understanding of criminal law by your attorney is crucial to your defense. Your rights and freedoms are in jeopardy, and you owe it to yourself to act. We are available to provide immediate assistance and further counsel on your criminal case at (862) 314-7929.