In State v. Nazier D. Goldsmith (A-77-20/085636) (DecidedJuly 5, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the information the officers possessed at the time of the stop, which included the defendant’s presence in a “high crime area,” did not amount to specific and particularized suspicion that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity. Accordingly, the officers did not have reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop and frisk the defendant.
Facts of State v. Goldsmith
On the evening of January 15, 2019, Officer Joseph Goonan and another officer were on patrol in an area of Camden 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 Nazier Goldsmith, exited the walkway leading 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 and retrieved a handgun. Defendant was arrested, and police later recovered currency and drugs from defendant’s person. 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.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Goldsmith
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “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,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote. “Therefore, the officers did not have reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate an investigatory detention of defendant.”
In his opinion, Justice Pierre-Louis explained that 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 several factors, including officer experience and knowledge. Justice Pierre-Louis further noted that while the reputation of an area may be relevant to the analysis, the court has previously held that “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.”
Applying the above principles to the case, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that the information officers possessed at the moment they detained defendant did not constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant was engaged in unlawful activity. “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,” Pierre-Louis wrote. “Seemingly furtive movements by the suspect, without more, are insufficient to constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion.”
With regard to defendant’s presence in a high-crime area, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to abandon presence in a high-crime area as a factor in determining whether reasonable and articulable suspicion exists. However, it emphasized that just because crime is prevalent in a particular area “does not mean that residents in those areas have lesser constitutional protection from random stops.” “The state must do more than simply invoke the buzz words ‘high-crime area’ in a conclusory manner to justify investigative stops,” Pierre-Louis explained. “Three people standing on the street interacting with each other, whether in a high-crime neighborhood or not, is not suggestive of criminal activity without more (reasonable suspicion).”