State v. Rosario – New Search and Seizure Decision on Field Inquiries and Investigative Detentions

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Rosario on June 6, 2017.  The case is important because, among other things, it discusses and distinguishes between the two most common types of police-citizen encounters, which are field inquiries and investigative detentions.

The facts are uncomplicated.  Police received an anonymous tip that defendant was selling illegal drugs from her home in a residential development, as well as from her vehicle.  One night, an officer patrolling the development noticed a moving silhouette in a parked car, which turned out to be the defendant’s vehicle, and decided to investigate further.  He pulled his patrol car up behind, and perpendicular to, the defendant’s car in such a way that the latter was blocked in.  The officer then activated his rooftop alley light which was aimed at the defendant’s car, but did not activate the siren or emergency lights.  The alley light enabled him to see a woman, who turned out to be the defendant, in the driver’s seat.  He observed her moving around in the driver’s seat and leaning toward the passenger’s seat.  He then exited his cruiser and approached the driver’s side door of the defendant’s car.  The window was partially open, and he asked the defendant for her license and other documents.  She produced the requested material, and the officer recognized her as the subject of the previously received anonymous tip and recalled that he had previously arrested her on narcotics-related charges.  He asked the defendant what she was doing, and she responded that she was smoking a cigarette, but the officer did not see a cigarette or butt.  He then asked her why she was moving around and turning toward the passenger seat when he pulled up, and she responded that she was putting on make-up and turned to put it away in her purse.  The officer then asked her how she could do that in the dark, but she did not respond.  He then asked if there was anything in the vehicle he should know about and, according to the officer, the defendant responded that she had the same thing he arrested her for previously.  According to the officer, the defendant then simply reached over to the passenger seat for an eyeglass case.  She opened it and the officer could see a white powdery substance.  The officer then arrested the defendant.  The trial court denied the defendant’s suppression motion, the Appellate Division affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certification.

The Supreme Court began by recalling that field inquiries, and investigative detentions or “Terry” stops, are two of the three types of encounters that an individual can have with law enforcement.  A field inquiry involves a situation where an individual, under all of the surrounding circumstances, reasonably believes that they cannot simply walk away without answering the officer’s questions.  In an investigative detention, the person reasonably believes that their freedom of movement has been restricted.  Thus, an investigative detention, unlike a field inquiry, is a temporary seizure of the person, and must therefore be based upon the officer’s reasonable and particularized suspicion that the person has engaged, or is about to engage, in criminal activity.  The nature and quality of these encounters are measured from the perspective of the individual who is the subject of the stop.

The Court determined that the stop of the defendant in this case rose to the level of an investigative detention because she clearly was not free to leave since her car was blocked in.  However, the detention was defective because all of the events that formed the basis for the officer’s reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity (e.g., the defendant’s movements while in her car, the obviously false statements about smoking and applying make-up, and the turnover of the illegal drugs), occurred after he blocked her car in with his cruiser.  Accordingly, at the time the officer detained the defendant, which occurred when he blocked her car, he lacked the factual basis upon which to form a reasonable and particularized suspicion of criminal activity.  Against this backdrop, the defendant’s statements, as well as the drugs, all had to be suppressed.  The decision is important because, among other things, it demonstrates that both the underlying events, as well as the order in which they occurred, can dramatically affect the result in any given case.

James S. Friedman LLC, based in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, represents criminal defendants in criminal cases in all state and federal courts located throughout New Jersey and New York City.  If you have criminal charges related to illegal narcotics including possession of CDS, distribution, maintaining a drug production facility, or leader of a narcotics trafficking network, do not make a statement to any member of law enforcement.  Instead, call us immediately to discuss your drug charges.

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