NJ Supreme Court Holds Fleeing Defendant Lacked Standing to Challenge Warrantless Search of Abandoned Suitcase

NJ Supreme Court Holds Fleeing Defendant Lacked Standing to Challenge Warrantless Search of Abandoned Suitcase

In State v. Curtis L. Gartrell (A-31-22/087597) (Decided January 17, 2024), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a defendant who left a suitcase behind when fleeing police did not have standing to challenge law enforcement’s warrantless search of the bag.

Facts of State v. Gartell

During the evening of November 6, 2019, an individual at Newark Penn Station reported to New Jersey Transit Police Officers that he had been punched by defendant Curtis Gartrell. As officers spoke to the Defendant, there was a blue rolling suitcase near him. The officers ran a search for outstanding warrants against the Defendant. While waiting for the results of the record check, the Defendant had several phone conversations with a person he referred to as “Spoon” and “bro,” who he claimed was coming to pick him up.

After the results of the record check revealed an active warrant, the officers informed the Defendant that they intended to place him under arrest. Defendant asked the officers whether he could first give his luggage to “Spoon,” but they declined the request, stating they would first take defendant into custody. Defendant called out, “‘Spoon,’ will you get my clothes, bro,” and turned as if preparing to be handcuffed; he then fled from the officers on foot, leaving the blue suitcase unattended on the sidewalk.

While other officers chased and arrested defendant, one officer secured and searched the suitcase at the entrance of the station, revealing the contraband. The Defendant was charged with possessory offenses and resisting arrest and subsequently filed a motion to suppress evidence recovered from the warrantless search of the suitcase. The trial court granted the motion, reasoning that the Defendant did not flee police because he wanted to discard the suitcase or relinquish his interest in it. The trial court also rejected the State’s argument that the search incident to arrest exception applied. The State appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the Defendant had abandoned the suitcase.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Gartell

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. It held that the Defendant’s possessory or ownership interest in the suitcase ended when he fled police outside Penn Station and deliberately left his suitcase behind in a public place with no evidence of anyone else’s interest in the bag. The Court further held that because the State demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the suitcase was abandoned, the Defendant lacked standing to challenge its seizure and search.

Citing State v. Johnson, 193 N.J. 528, 548 (2008), the New Jersey Supreme Court first emphasized that when property is abandoned, the defendant has “no right to challenge the search or seizure of that property.” Under Johnson, property is abandoned only if “(1) a person has either actual or constructive control or dominion over property; (2) he knowingly and voluntarily relinquishes any possessory or ownership interest in the property; and (3) there are no other apparent or known owners of the property.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Solomon went on to note that the Court held in Johnson that the defendant had not surrendered his standing to challenge the search of a bag solely because he had disclaimed ownership, given that the bag was in an apartment with five occupants and could have belonged to any one of them. He further noted in Johnson the Court placed great significance on the fact that the “the police might still have easily determined its owner.”

Justice Solomon contrasted the Court’s Johnson decision with State v. Carvajal, 202 N.J. 214, 225 (2010). In Carvajal, the Court upheld the search of an unattended bag left on a bus after finding that the bag was abandoned because it was “left in a public place or on a public carrier” with “no apparent owner,” and the “police did not search the bag until all apparent owners had disclaimed any possessory interest in the property.”

In the current case, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the Defendant abandoned the suitcase. “The act of fleeing to avoid a lawful arrest in a public place demonstrates defendant’s intent to place as much distance as possible between himself and the property left behind,” Justice Solomon explained. “When defendant ran from police in the heavily trafficked area on the sidewalk outside of Penn Station, without any indication that he intended to return, he abandoned the suitcase in a public place.”

The Court further concluded that the Defendant’s vague references to “Spoon,” who was never unidentified, do not rise to the level of an indication of ownership and control. “And, unlike when there are a finite and fixed number of potential owners as in Carvajal and Johnson, the police cannot be expected to identify and canvass everyone at or near a major transportation hub to determine who, if anyone, might have a possessory interest in a bag deliberately left behind in a public place,” Justice Solomon wrote.

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