Recent New Jersey Supreme Court Decision on Defendant’s Ability to Challenge Search and Seizure of Abandoned Property

Earlier this year, our Supreme Court Ruled on a defendant’s ability to challenge the search and seizure of abandoned property.  In State v. Gartrell, an individual at Penn Station in Newark reported to New Jersey Transit police officers that the defendant had punched him.  The officers then spoke to the defendant, who had a rolling suitcase near him.  While the officers checked for outstanding warrants, the defendant engaged in several telephone conversations with someone he called “Spoon” or “bro”.  The warrant check revealed an active warrant, and the officers told the defendant that they were going to arrest him.  The defendant asked the officers if he could first give his luggage to Spoon, and the officers responded that they were first going to take the defendant into custody.  The defendant then called out “Spoon, will you get my clothes, bro”, turned as if to be handcuffed, ran from the officers leaving the suitcase unattended on the sidewalk, and was quickly apprehended.  While some of the officers present chased the defendant, another searched the suitcase at the entrance of the station and discovered handguns, ammunition, drugs and cash.

The defendant moved before the trial court to suppress the evidence recovered from the warrantless search of the suitcase.  The trial court granted the motion, finding that the defendant did not run from the police because he wanted to discard the suitcase or relinquish his interest in it.  That court also rejected the State’s argument that the search incident to arrest exception applied.  The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the Defendant had abandoned the suitcase.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision, noting that a defendant has no right to challenge the search or seizure of abandoned property.  The State must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the subject property was, in fact, abandoned.  In the matter at bar, the defense was unable to confirm Spoon’s identity, or to even demonstrate that he really existed.  If Spoon did exist, he did not yet have possession of the suitcase when the police searched it.  Further, the Defendant’s act of fleeing to avoid a lawful arrest in a public place demonstrated his intention to place as much distance as possible between himself and the property he left behind, e.g., the suitcase.  He ran in a heavily trafficked area on the sidewalk outside of Newark Penn Station with no indication that he intended to return.  As such, he abandoned the suitcase in a public place.  Finally, the police were not obligated to question everyone at or near a major transportation hub to determine who, if anyone, may have had a possessory interest in a suitcase that was deliberately left behind in a public place.  Against this backdrop, the Court found that the Defendant lacked standing to challenge the search and seizure of the suitcase.

Justice Noriega dissented noting, among other things, that mere flight, without more, should not end a defendant’s Constitutional right to challenge a search where, as in the matter at bar, the Defendant’s words, actions and behavior all demonstrated his control of and possessory interest in the suitcase prior to fleeing.  In his view, the majority stretched the concept of abandonment into an exception to the warrant requirement, and that there were ways for the involved officers to conduct an orderly inventory search of the suitcase.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Mr. Friedman represents defendants with criminal charges in the New Jersey Superior Court in all counties, all New Jersey municipal courts, the United States district court in New Jersey and the federal and state courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  If you have a case in one of these Courts, call Mr. Friedman to discuss your options and to start preparing your defense.



Justia Lawyer Rating
New Jersey Bar Association Badge
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Badge
 ACDL - NJ Badge
Contact Information