In State v. Gartrell, ___ N.J. ___ (2023) (slip op. at 2),[1] the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the defendant Curtis Gartrell, who fled from police outside of Newark Penn Station, leaving behind a suitcase containing handguns, ammunition, illegal narcotics, and cash, had abandoned the suitcase and was therefore without standing to challenge law enforcement’s warrantless search of the suitcase.

In Gartrell, New Jersey Transit Police Officers responded to a disturbance at Newark Penn Station.  Id. at __ (slip op. at 2-3).  The officers spoke to the victim and the defendant in a heavily trafficked area on the sidewalk outside the station. Id. at __ (slip op. at 2-3).   During his conversation with the officers, the defendant had a blue rolling suitcase on the ground near him.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 3).  While waiting for the officers to conduct an outstanding warrant check, the defendant had several phone conversations with a person he referred to as “Spoon,” who the defendant claimed was coming to pick him up.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 3).

The officers then advised the defendant that he was under arrest based on an outstanding warrant.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 3).  The defendant asked the officers whether he could give the blue suitcase to “Spoon,” but they stated he would be taken into custody first.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 3-4).  The defendant then called out, “‘Spoon,’ will you get my clothes,” and turned as if preparing to be handcuffed, but then fled from the officers on foot, leaving the blue suitcase unattended on the sidewalk.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 4).  Officers apprehended the defendant after a very brief foot chase.   Id. at ___ (slip op. at 4).  During the chase and subsequent arrest, Officer Thomas Dietze searched the defendant’s suitcase at the entrance to the train station without a warrant.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 4).  The search revealed handguns, ammunition, illegal narcotics, and cash.  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 4).

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the contents of the suitcase, reasoning that “although it was uncertain why defendant fled the police, it was not because defendant wanted to discard the suitcase or relinquish his interest in it.”  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 5).  On motion for leave to appeal, the Appellate reversed, finding that the defendant had abandoned his suitcase.   Id. at ___ (slip op. at 6).

The Supreme Court affirmed finding that “[t]he act of fleeing to avoid a lawful arrest in a public place demonstrates defendant’s intent to place as much distance as possible between himself and the property left behind.  When defendant ran from police in the heavily trafficked area on the sidewalk outside of Penn Station, without any indication that he intended to return, he abandoned the suitcase in a public place.”   Id. at ___ (slip op. at 5).  The “defendant’s interest in the suitcase ceased when he fled police outside Penn Station and deliberately left his suitcase behind in a public place with no evidence of anyone else’s interest in the bag.”   Id. at ___ (slip op. at 17).  Thus, the Court held that “[b]ecause the State has demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the suitcase was abandoned, defendant is without standing to challenge its seizure and search.”  Id. at ___ (slip op. at 17).

Justice Noriega filed a dissent, arguing that the majority opinion “unnecessarily expands the previously narrow abandonment exception to our automatic standing rule by making abandonment synonymous with flight and permitting a law enforcement shortcut to violate a suspect’s constitutional protections.”   Id. at ___ (J. Noriega, dissenting) (slip op. at 19).

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[1] I included page citations to this recent Supreme Court decision from the official slip opinion located at