State v. Goldsmith, A-77 September Term 2020

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE PIERRE-LOUIS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation251 N.J. 384,277 A.3d 1028
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Nazier D. GOLDSMITH, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberA-77 September Term 2020,085636
Decision Date05 July 2022

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, Newark, 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, Newark, 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).

JUSTICE PIERRE-LOUIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

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 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.

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 because they were not based on reasonable suspicion.

The trial court granted the motion, finding the stop lawful but the frisk unlawful. Because the trial court held the frisk to be unlawful, all the seized evidence (the gun, ammunition, drugs, and money) was suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree.

The Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate Division did not address the initial stop of defendant, analyzing instead only whether the frisk was objectively reasonable. The Appellate Division found that based on the totality of the circumstances -- including defendant's presence in a high-crime area and his behavior and body language -- the officer's frisk of defendant was objectively reasonable.

We granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal regarding whether officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop and frisk him. We find that 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. We reverse the Appellate Division's judgment and reinstate the trial court's suppression order. Because the initial stop was unlawful, we need not reach the issue of the frisk of defendant.


We rely on the testimony from the suppression hearing for the following summary.

Officer Goonan was the only witness to testify at the hearing. Officer Goonan testified that as part of his role in the Special Investigations Bureau, he patrolled high-crime areas to look for drugs and weapons, and when he saw a possible fugitive, he would ask the person for identification. He stated that in his 20 years of experience, he had witnessed hundreds of drug transactions, which he described as a buyer walking up to another person and exchanging currency for small objects. Officer Goonan said that in his experience, drugs are often stashed in alleyways. He further testified that he had recovered over 50 firearms and that, in his experience, firearms are commonly present at drug transactions.

Officer Goonan explained that on the evening of January 15, 2019, at approximately 6:00 p.m., he and another officer from the Camden County Sheriff's Office were on patrol in Camden. Officer Goonan testified that they were patrolling the 1600 block of Holcaine Street, which Officer Goonan identified as a "high-crime area" known for shootings and open-air drug transactions. The officers approached a vacant house, where they believed drugs were sold and weapons stored.1 According to Officer Goonan's testimony, the officers observed two individuals standing in front of the vacant house who walked away when the officers exited their vehicle. Although the officers were not in uniform, they were wearing tactical vests marked with the word "police" on the front and back. Officer Goonan stated that the officers did not attempt to stop the two individuals, but that he "radioed to ... another car in the area the description of the two males that walked off."

The following is an excerpt from Officer Goonan's testimony regarding his observations and conclusions:

PROSECUTOR: And can you describe what you saw around 6 p.m. that day?
OFFICER GOONAN: Yeah. I was riding with my partner at the time to come around the corner and observed two males standing out front of the property, what's known where the drugs are usually sold. As we made our approach we exited our vehicles. They walked away and at the same time I observed a male coming out of the alleyway, I'm not sure of the house address --
OFFICER GOONAN: -- but it was -- it's a vacant house, but it was an alley between -- along the side of it.
PROSECUTOR: So it was an abandoned house with an alleyway beside it?
PROSECUTOR: And what did you think when you observed that? Based on your training and experience, what was -- OFFICER GOONAN: The two -- the two men that were standing out front were there to purchase drugs.
PROSECUTOR: And did those two males see you?
OFFICER GOONAN: As we -- when we exited our vehicle. We drive unmarked vehicles.
PROSECUTOR: Okay. So can you describe the actual approach then?
OFFICER GOONAN: Came up to -- came up the street, like I said. It's only -- it's not even a full -- full block. It's, maybe, one block. We came up, we exited the vehicle, and at the same time [they] walked off and we observed a male come out of the alleyway.
PROSECUTOR: And you said -- so you got out of your car and you're about to walk up to the male?
OFFICER GOONAN: Yeah. We were -- we were -- we pulled up. Like I said, they didn't recognize our car, the two guys standing on the street. So we were, basically, only a few feet from them.
PROSECUTOR: From -- from --
OFFICER GOONAN: The two males out front that walked off. And then the male, [defendant], who came out of the alleyway.
PROSECUTOR: Okay. And did you approach him?
PROSECUTOR: And why is that?
OFFICER GOONAN: To ask him why he was coming out of the alleyway. It was vacant property.
PROSECUTOR: Okay. And why did you -- based on your training and experience, why did you think that was suspect?
OFFICER GOONAN: That's a known drug area, and I observed a male coming out -- I call it an alleyway. It's really not. It's like a walkway, I guess, up against the side of a house.
PROSECUTOR: Okay. And --
OFFICER GOONAN: To me that was suspicion somebody was dealing drugs.
PROSECUTOR: And why was that suspicious?
OFFICER GOONAN: Only because of the numerous reports I've been having in the area.

On cross-examination, Officer Goonan confirmed that the walkway on the side of the house led to a backyard. Officer Goonan did not know whether multiple homes were accessible via that walkway and backyard or whether all the other surrounding properties were fenced in. Officer Goonan further expressly confirmed that he did not witness a hand-to-hand transaction between defendant and the two men who walked away.

Upon approaching defendant, Officer Goonan did not recall the officers telling defendant to "stop" in order to initiate questioning him, but Officer Goonan testified that when defendant "came out of the alleyway, we were two -- two officers standing there." Given where the officers were standing in front of the walkway, they blocked defendant's path forward. According to Officer Goonan, defendant could not have moved forward freely, but "could run back up that walkway," essentially away from the officers.

The officers approached defendant and began questioning him. The officers asked for his name, where he was from, whether he lived in the area, whether he had identification on him, and for an explanation of his presence on the walkway. According to Officer Goonan,...

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