State v. Goldsmith, A-77-20

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtPIERRE-LOUIS, JUSTICE
PartiesState of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Nazier D. Goldsmith, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberA-77-20
Decision Date05 July 2022

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.

Nazier D. Goldsmith, Defendant-Appellant.

No. A-77-20

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 5, 2022


Argued January 18, 2022

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Ashley Brooks, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender; attorney; Ashley Brooks, of counsel and on the briefs).

Rachel M. Lamb, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Grace C. MacAulay, Camden County Prosecutor, attorney; Rachel M. Lamb, of counsel and on the briefs).

Alexander Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, attorneys; Alexander Shalom, Jeanne LoCicero, and Karen Thompson, on the brief).

Jennifer B. Condon submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, PhD (Seton Hall Law School, Center for Social Justice, attorneys; Jennifer B. Condon, on the brief).

PIERRE-LOUIS, J., writing for the Court.

In this case, the Court must determine whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed when a police officer conducted an investigatory stop of defendant Nazier Goldsmith on a walkway adjacent to a vacant house.

On the evening of January 15, 2019, Officer Joseph Goonan and another officer were on patrol in Camden in what they believed to be a "high-crime area" known for shootings and drug dealing. While approaching the vacant house, the officers observed two individuals standing in front of it. When the officers exited their vehicle, the two individuals walked away. At the same time, a third person, defendant, exited the walkway that leads to the rear of the house.

Based on his training, 20 years of experience, and his belief that the vacant house was used for the sale of drugs and weapons, Officer Goonan found it suspicious that defendant was on the walkway next to the vacant house and believed defendant was engaged in drug dealing activity. The officers approached defendant, blocked his path at the end of the walkway, and began questioning him, asking for his name and for an explanation of his presence on that walkway.

According to Officer Goonan, defendant became nervous and looked up and down the street; he started sweating, and his hands began to shake. Defendant provided a name and informed officers that his identification was in his jacket pocket. Because defendant's demeanor made him nervous, Officer Goonan told defendant that he would retrieve the identification from defendant's pocket. At that point, defendant stated, "I appreciate if you guys didn't pat me down," arousing Officer Goonan's suspicions even further.

Officer Goonan conducted a pat down for weapons. The officer felt a weapon in defendant's jacket pocket and retrieved a handgun. Defendant was arrested, and police later recovered currency and drugs from defendant's person. A search of the walkway revealed drugs in baggies that were the same color as the baggies of drugs found in defendant's pockets.

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Defendant was charged with weapons and drug offenses. Defendant moved to suppress the gun and drugs, arguing that both the stop and frisk were unlawful. The trial court granted the motion, finding the stop lawful but the frisk unlawful. The Appellate Division reversed. Without addressing the initial stop, the appellate court found that the frisk of defendant was objectively reasonable. The Court granted leave to appeal. 248 N.J. 3 (2021).

HELD: The information the officers possessed at the time of the stop did not amount to specific and particularized suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity. Therefore, the officers did not have reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate an investigatory detention of defendant, and the evidence seized must be suppressed.

1. An investigative or Terry stop, see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), is a relatively brief detention by police during which a person's movement is restricted. Such a stop does not offend the Federal or State Constitution, and no warrant is needed, if it is based on specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Although reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause, it cannot be based on inarticulate hunches or an arresting officer's subjective good faith. Whether reasonable and articulable suspicion exists for an investigatory stop is a highly fact-intensive inquiry that demands evaluation of the totality of circumstances surrounding the police-citizen encounter, balancing the State's interest in effective law enforcement against the individual's right to be protected from unwarranted and/or overbearing police intrusions. The inquiry considers numerous factors, including officer experience and knowledge. It is well-settled that seemingly furtive movements by the suspect, without more, are insufficient to constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion. And although the reputation of an area may be relevant to the analysis, just because a location to which police officers are dispatched is a high-crime area does not mean that the residents in that area have lesser constitutional protection from random stops. (pp. 17-20)

2. To determine whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed here, the Court first considers when the investigatory stop commenced. Although officers did not tell defendant to "stop" when he exited the walkway, they blocked his path, and Officer Goonan acknowledged that defendant could not have moved forward freely at that point. No reasonably prudent person would have felt free to leave when officers stepped into the only path of egress and began asking questions, leaving defendant no place to go but backwards. The moment officers impeded defendant's forward progress and began the questioning, the encounter became an investigatory detention or stop. (pp. 20-22)

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3. Turning to whether officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop defendant at that point in time, the Court stresses that Officer Goonan unequivocally testified that he did not witness defendant interact with or engage in a hand-to-hand transaction with the two men that left the scene, contrary to the trial court's finding that the two men were with defendant. As for defendant's presence in a high-crime area, the Court continues to view the impact of previous crimes in the same area as a police encounter as a factor to be considered in the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a stop was based on reasonable suspicion. However, the State must do more than simply invoke the buzz words "high-crime area" in a conclusory manner to justify investigative stops. Here, Officer Goonan's vague testimony fell short of providing factual support for his conclusory statement that the area was high crime. The State must provide at least some evidence to support the assertion that a neighborhood should be considered as "high-crime." (pp. 22-26)

4. Here, even if Officer Goonan had provided more information regarding the prevalence of crime in the area, that would have been insufficient to justify the stop because the other factors on which the officers relied were also insufficient -- even when taken together -- to form a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity. The only information the officers possessed prior to the stop was information that could be used to justify the stop of virtually anyone, on any day, and at any time, based simply on their presence on that street. Officer Goonan had a hunch that defendant was engaged in criminal activity. That hunch, however, did not amount to objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion for an investigatory stop. Because the stop here was unlawful, the Court does not reach the lawfulness of the frisk. (pp. 26-28)

REVERSED. REMANDED for REINSTATEMENT of the suppression order.

JUSTICE SOLOMON, dissenting, would defer to the trial court's conclusion as to the point at which defendant's encounter with the police became an investigative detention. Justice Solomon notes that the trial court had before it a key piece of evidence -- a photograph of the walkway next to the vacant house -- that is missing from the record on appeal. In Justice Solomon's view, the majority's conclusion that the officers blocked defendant's path forward is not supported by the record, and the trial court's conclusion that the seizure began when the officers asked defendant for identification was not so clearly mistaken that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction through appellate review.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICE ALBIN; and JUDGE FUENTES (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE PIERRE-LOUIS's opinion. JUSTICE SOLOMON filed a dissent, in which JUSTICE PATTERSON joins.

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OPINION

PIERRE-LOUIS, JUSTICE

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In this case, we must determine whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed when a police officer conducted an investigatory stop of defendant Nazier Goldsmith on a walkway adjacent to a vacant house. Two police officers were on patrol in Camden in what they believed to be a "high-crime area" known for shootings and drug dealing. While approaching the vacant house, the officers observed two individuals standing in front of it. When the officers exited their vehicle, the two individuals walked away. At the same time, a third person, defendant, exited the walkway that leads to the rear of the house.

Based on his training, 20 years of experience, and his belief that the vacant house was used for the sale of drugs and weapons, Officer Joseph Goonan found it suspicious that defendant was on the walkway next to the vacant house and believed defendant was engaged in drug dealing activity. So the officers approached...

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