State v. Nelson and Prolonged Traffic Stops

Our Supreme Court recently decided State v. Nelson, which addresses the extent to which the police may prolong a traffic stop to investigate suspected criminal activity.

The facts of the case are straight-forward.  A New Jersey state trooper learned from a reliable source that a silver Infiniti with a known plate number driven by an African-American male would be traveling up the Turnpike with a large quantity of marijuana.  The car was spotted shortly after receiving this information, and was pulled over for traffic violations.  Upon approaching the car, the trooper noticed a strong smell of air freshener.  The driver was sweating heavily, and was visibly nervous.  He was asked where he was going, and changed his story repeatedly.  The car contained no personal belongings except for two large bundles in the cargo area.  The driver told the trooper the bags contained shoes from a store he was closing.

The trooper asked for consent to search the car, but this was denied.  At this point, he believed that he had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime was being committed, and asked for a canine search unit to come to the scene.  He made the request at 7:21 pm, and the canine arrived at 7:58 pm.  The dog alerted at the rear hatch, the driver was arrested, and the vehicle was impounded and searched pursuant to a warrant.  The search led to the discovery of 80 pounds of marijuana.The issue before the Court concerned whether the interval between the request for the canine unit and its arrival at the scene unnecessarily prolonged the stop, resulting in a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.  The Court held that the stop was prolonged, but there was no violation of the defendant’s rights since the officer had already developed a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime had been or was being committed.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court recalled that if during the course of a stop or as a result of reasonable inquiries by the officer the circumstances give rise to suspicions that are unrelated to the traffic infraction, the officer may broaden their inquiry and investigate those suspicions.  An officer may not conduct a sniff search in a way that prolongs a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to complete the mission of the stop itself, unless s/he has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that would justify the decision to do so.  Simply put, an officer cannot prolong the stop absent the suspicion.

Turning to the case at bar and the question of whether delaying the defendant was justified by an independent reasonable and articulable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity, the Court reviewed the facts of the case and found the delay was justified.  Here the court noted the officer: was acting on a tip from a valid and reliable source; observed moving violations; observed the defendant acting in a very nervous and shaky manner; received conflicting stories from the defendant about his trip; did not see personal belongings in the car; saw large bags in the cargo area; and detected a very heavy smell of air freshener, which is commonly used to mask the smell of drugs in a car.  Taken together, these facts justified prolonging the stop to call for the canine unit.

James S. Friedman is a criminal defense attorney with offices in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Mr. Friedman represents people with criminal charges in all New Jersey state courts, all New Jersey municipal courts, all New York State courts located in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the federal district courts locate throughout New Jersey and New York City.  If you have a criminal charge in one of these courts, your first call should be to us.


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