In State v. Peter Nyema (A-39-20/085146) and State v. Jamar J. Myers (A-40-20/082858) (Decided January 25, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that law enforcement officers can’t stop a vehicle during an investigation based solely on a suspect’s race and gender.
Facts of the Case
After the robbery of a 7-Eleven store in Hamilton, police dispatch alerted officers that the suspects were two Black males, one armed with a gun. Sergeant Mark Horan heard the radio transmission and made his way to the scene. While en route, Sergeant Horan used the mounted spotlight on his marked police car to illuminate the interior of passing vehicles in order to search for the robbery suspects. In the first vehicle Horan encountered, a man and a woman reacted with annoyance and alarm when Horan shone the spotlight into their car.
When Horan came across a second vehicle, approximately three-quarters of a mile from the store, he illuminated the interior of the car with the spotlight and saw three Black males inside. According to Horan, the men did not react to the spotlight at all. Horan viewed that non-reaction as “odd” considering the reaction of the passengers in the first car. At that point, the only information Horan had about the robbery was that the suspects were two Black males, one with a gun, who fled the robbery on foot. Dispatch had not provided any additional identifiers.
Based on the race and sex of the occupants and their non-reaction to the spotlight, Sergeant Horan executed a motor vehicle stop of the car. After stopping the car, Horan learned that the vehicle had been reported stolen so defendants were placed under arrest. A search of the car revealed dark clothing — clothes matching what the suspects were wearing during the robbery — and a handgun hidden under the hood of the car.
Defendants Peter Nyema, Jamar Myers, and a third co-defendant were charged with a host of offenses related to the 7-Eleven robbery. Nyema and Myers jointly moved to suppress the items seized during the search of the vehicle, arguing that the stop was unlawful because it was not based on reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and both Myers and Nyema eventually pled guilty to first-degree robbery.
Both defendants appealed from the partial denial of their motion to suppress. In Myers’s case, the Appellate Division affirmed. In Nyema’s case, the Appellate Division held that the stop was not based on reasonable and articulable suspicion. Accordingly, Nyema’s conviction was reversed, his sentence vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Myers decision and affirmed in Nyema, concluding that law enforcement impermissibly stopped the defendants on the basis of race.
“The only information the officer possessed at the time of the stop was the race and sex of the suspects, with no further descriptors,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote. “That information, which effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion, was insufficient to justify the stop of the vehicle and therefore does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that an investigative stop or detention 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. The court went on to explain that determining 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.
Citing additional precedent in which the court determined that police lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct an evidentiary stop based on descriptions limited to the race and sex of the suspect, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to find that the information Sergeant Horan possessed at the time of the motor-vehicle stop constituted reasonable and articulable suspicion.
While the court acknowledged that race and sex — when taken together with other, discrete factors — can support reasonable and articulable suspicion, it noted that the initial description in this case did not provide any additional physical descriptions such as the suspects’ approximate heights, weights, ages, clothing worn, mode of transportation, or any other identifying feature that would differentiate the two Black male suspects from any other Black men in New Jersey.
“That vague description, quite frankly, was ‘descriptive of nothing.’ If that description alone were sufficient to allow police to conduct an investigatory stop of defendants’ vehicle, then law enforcement officers would have been permitted to stop every Black man within a reasonable radius of the robbery,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “Such a generic description that encompasses each and every man belonging to a particular race cannot, without more, meet the constitutional threshold of individualized reasonable suspicion.”