State v. Nyema, a recent Appellate Division decision, is important because it helps to set parameters for what constitutes a sufficient basis for an investigatory stop.
The case arose from a convenience store robbery. The police had information that the robbery was committed by two black males who fled on foot. An officer in the area who was familiar with the location responded. Less than a mile from the store, he saw a vehicle traveling toward him and away from the store, pointed his spotlight into the vehicle and observed a male and female. Both occupants reacted in a way that displayed annoyance with the spotlight. The officer then saw a second vehicle traveling away from the store, shined his spotlight into that car and observed three black males. He testified that none of them responded in any way to the light, but just stared straight ahead. Thinking their reaction was “odd”, he decided to stop the vehicle. Other officers who arrived at the scene had learned that the robbery suspects were wearing black or dark clothing. The defendant was the front-seat passenger. While standing outside the vehicle, the officer who made the stop saw dark jackets on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Dispatch contacted this officer and told him the car was reported stolen. The vehicle’s occupants were ordered out of the car and arrested, and the officer who stopped the car searched it. He located, among other things, a red bandana under the hood with a gun wrapped inside. The occupants were searched and each had cash. The defendant and another occupant moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car. At the suppression hearing, the defendant’s father testified that he owned the car, that it was not stolen, and that he had not reported it stolen in the days preceding the stop. A police officer testified as to a report that the vehicle was stolen.
The motion judge found that none of the defendants had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle because it was stolen, and that the stop was lawful because the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the occupants had robbed the store. Incredibly, the judge noted that “the racial makeup of the occupants of the vehicle, three black males traveling away from the scene was the reasonable and typical suspicion for the officer to ultimately pull this car over”, and the clothing in the vehicle was lawfully seized under the plain view doctrine. That part of the suppression motion was denied; however, the judge suppressed the gun because it was taken from under the hood without a warrant. Continue reading ›