State v. Stovall, a-15

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation788 A.2d 736
Docket Numbera-15
PartiesSTATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FELICIA STOVALL, Defendant-Respondent.September Term 2000 SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Decision Date28 January 2002

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

ZAZZALI, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

This appeal requires the Court to determine whether a law enforcement officer's investigatory stop at Newark International Airport was justified by a reasonable suspicion that the suspect was transporting narcotics.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is charged with the operation of Newark International Airport. The Port Authority employs numerous law enforcement officers including Detective Charles Benoit, a narcotics interdiction officer who works primarily at Newark Airport. At the time of the incident, Benoit was on loan to the Port Authority from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

On May 31, 1998, Benoit received an electronic page from DEA Agent Scott Cahill in Los Angeles, informing Benoit that an American Airlines ticket agent at Los Angeles International Airport had informed him that two potential drug couriers were aboard American Airlines Flight 114 from Los Angeles to Newark. According to the ticket agent, two female suspects had checked in using "fraudulent" or "questionable" identification. Agent Cahill also informed Benoit that one of the suspects was traveling under the name "Roberta Chambers." He further stated that although the suspects' airline tickets had been purchased at the same time from the same agency, the women were traveling separately and did not appear to know each other. Agent Cahill described the suspects as "possibly Hispanic," in their mid-twenties, and wearing business-type suits and carrying black tote bags with wheels. Agent Cahill further told Benoit that the tickets were purchased through International Mirmar Travel. Detective Benoit testified that he previously had arrested drug traffickers with tickets purchased from that agency. He also testified that he had received information of this nature from the DEA numerous times.

Detective Benoit notified his partner, and met him at their office in Newark Airport. They confirmed the flight's arrival time, obtained the services of a Spanish-speaking officer, and notified a K-9 Port Authority police officer to stand by. The detectives then proceeded to the American Airlines terminal and waited for Flight 114 to arrive.

As passengers disembarked, Detective Benoit noticed two women emerge separately from the jetway who matched the general descriptions provided by Agent Cahill. They were pulling small, black tote bags on wheels. Detective Benoit testified that drug couriers prefer carry-on luggage because "check-in" luggage might be subject to handling by others and because K-9 units are regularly posted in the baggage handling area. Although matching Agent Cahill's general descriptions, the women were African-American, not Hispanic.

As the women were leaving the terminal, Detective Benoit followed Felicia Stovall and his partner pursued the other suspect. Detective Benoit approached Stovall, identified himself as a police officer, and "asked for permission to speak with her." Stovall asked where he would like to speak with her and Benoit replied where they were was fine. Detective Benoit asked where Stovall's flight had originated from, and Stovall responded "Los Angeles." At Benoit's request, Stovall produced her airline ticket bearing the name "Roberta Chambers," which Benoit recognized as one of the names provided by Agent Cahill. Detective Benoit also noticed that Stovall had a "bulk" ticket. According to Benoit, narcotics suppliers often purchase such tickets, which are available at discounted rates because purchased in "bulk." The tickets are then distributed to individual couriers.

Detective Benoit then asked Stovall for identification. Stovall presented him with a California state identification card bearing the name "Roberta Chambers" with an address on Main Street in Los Angeles, California. Detective Benoit testified that he found this identification "unusual," because "most people carry more substantial identification, specifically a driver's license." Benoit also found the identification suspicious because the card had expired.

Detective Benoit asked several other questions about Stovall's local destination and about the bag she was carrying. He testified that during this conversation, Stovall was noticeably nervous and her hand shook. After several minutes, Stovall asked Detective Benoit why he was asking her questions. He informed Stovall he was a member of a narcotics interdiction team and that he suspected she was carrying drugs. Benoit requested permission to search Stovall's suitcase, but Stovall refused and told Benoit she wanted to leave. In response, Detective Benoit asked Stovall if she "could please stand by one minute," but Stovall reiterated that she wanted to leave. Detective Benoit said "this will just take a few moments," and called for the K-9 unit. The officers placed Stovall's luggage on the ground, and the dog "alerted," indicating the presence of narcotics.

The officers took Stovall into custody and advised her of their intention to seek a warrant to search the bag. Stovall then revealed her real name and consented to a search of the bag. The search yielded three bundles of marijuana totaling approximately forty-seven pounds. Stovall was indicted for various drug offenses, including possession of twenty-five pounds or more of controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute. The trial court granted Stovall's motion to suppress, and the Appellate Division affirmed in an unpublished, per curiam opinion.

The Supreme Court granted the State's motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: Based on the totality of the circumstances, the detective had a reasonable suspicion that Stovall was engaged in criminal activity to justify the investigatory stop.

1. A person has a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. A seizure occurs when a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was not free to leave. However, police may conduct an investigatory stop if the officer has a reasonable and particularized suspicion to believe that an individual is engaged in, or is about to engage in, criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion necessary to justify an investigatory stop is a lower standard than the probable cause necessary to sustain an arrest. In this case, a seizure occurred. Stovall expressed her desire to leave, but Detective Benoit responded "to stand by one minute" and "this will just take a few moments." An objectively reasonable person in Stovall's position would not have felt free to leave. (Pp. 8-12)

2. The trial court and the Appellate Division held that Detective Benoit's detention of Stovall was unconstitutional, concluding that he impermissibly relied on a "drug courier profile." A "drug courier profile" is merely a shorthand way of referring to a group of characteristics that may indicate that a person is a drug courier. The mere fact that a suspect displays profile characteristics does not justify a stop. A court must examine the totality of the circumstances, including the facts that may match profile characteristics, to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists. (Pp. 13-17)

3. The information provided by Agent Cahill to Detective Benoit, standing alone, does not support a finding of reasonable suspicion. However, the tip must be included in the "totality of the circumstances" analysis. The Court also gives due weight to Detective Benoit's twenty-seven years of experience in the field of law enforcement and, most important, to his four years of experience in the field of narcotics interdiction. Among Detective Benoit's observations were that Stovall's flight originated in Los Angeles, a known source for drug trafficking; Stovall and the other suspect had "bulk" tickets that were purchased at the same time from the same agency, but were traveling separately; both suspects traveled using the same, black, carry-on luggage, common to drug couriers; Stovall's identification card had expired, and was not the type of substantial identification one would expect of someone traveling across country for an extended stay; and Stovall was nervous and her hand shook during the questioning. Although some of this evidence suggests benign behavior, the totality of all of the circumstances is more than sufficient to justify a finding of reasonable suspicion. (Pp. 17-33)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

JUSTICE COLEMAN has filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. He agrees that the detention of Stovall constituted a seizure, but disagrees that the record establishes the constitutionally required reasonable and particularized suspicion that defendant possessed illegal drugs.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICE LaVECCHIA join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI's opinion. JUSTICE COLEMAN has filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE STEIN joins. JUSTICES LONG and VERNIERO did not participate.

Casey J. Woodruff, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Thomas V. Manahan, Union County Prosecutor, attorney; Mr. Woodruff and Steven J. Kaflowitz, Assistant Prosecutor, on the briefs).

Joseph Charles argued the cause for respondent (Ashley and Charles, attorneys).

Robert E. Bonpietro, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (John J. Farmer, Jr., Attorney General, attorney).

Linda Mehling, Assistant...

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