In State v. Donna M. Alessi (A-41/42-17/079255) (Decided January 27, 2020), the New Jersey Supreme Court confirmed that the police may not pull over a driver for questioning in furtherance of an investigation without reasonable suspicion that she committed a crime or traffic violation. As the court explained, “A law enforcement officer cannot use an automobile stop merely for the purpose of a police interview.”
Facts of State v. Alessi
In 2011, defendant Donna Alessi began dating Philip Izzo, a construction official for Raritan Township. One of Izzo’s employees, Mark Fornaciari, filed a whistleblower claim against Izzo. In preparing his defense, Izzo took Fornaciari’s personnel file and stored it in his truck. After Alessi’s relationship with Izzo ended, she saw him at a bar. She then went to the parking lot, entered his truck, and removed some of her personal items as well as the personnel file, which she mailed to Fornaciari. The package wound up at the construction office because of an issue with the address, and the police were called. They determined through post office surveillance footage that defendant had mailed the package.
Detective Benedict Donaruma made several attempts to contact Alessi. After knocking at her door one day, he waited to see if she would leave. After a couple of minutes, he spotted defendant’s vehicle on a local road and made a traffic stop. Donaruma told Alessi that he wanted to discuss his investigation, but informed Alessi that she was free to leave.
According to Donaruma, Alessi initially denied involvement but then admitted she sent the package at the behest of her then-boyfriend Izzo in an effort to get Fornaciari and another person in trouble with the Township. Defendant conceded she and Izzo drafted the letter enclosed in the package together, and she intentionally listed the wrong return address so the package would end up with the Township.
Police arrested Izzo on charges of official misconduct and misapplication of entrusted property. He claimed that the personnel file had been stolen out of his truck at the bar. Defendant later gave another statement in the presence of her attorney, in which she stated that, by the time she mailed the package, she was no longer dating Izzo. She asserted she had permission to enter Izzo’s truck and remove her personal effects, and that she accidentally grabbed the personnel file. Upon realizing her mistake, she decided to send it back to Fornaciari to spite Izzo and help with the lawsuit.
Defendant was arrested and charged with false reporting, hindering apprehension, and burglary. She moved to suppress her roadside statement based on a violation of the Fifth Amendment. The court admitted the statement at trial, and a jury found Alessi guilty on all three counts. The Appellate Division reversed her convictions, holding that the roadside stop was unconstitutional. Following a motion for reconsideration, the Appellate Division changed course as to the burglary conviction, determining that there was clear evidence that defendant entered Izzo’s truck without permission and removed the personnel file.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Alessi
The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed. “We find the circumstances of this case do not legitimize the stop,” the court held. “Indeed, we reiterate that law enforcement must have reasonable and articulable suspicion of a traffic violation, the commission of a crime, or unlawful activity before executing a traffic stop.”
In reaching its decision, the court emphasized that an investigatory stop in the absence of a warrant is justified only by reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime. It explained:
To validate such a stop, the State must proffer more than disconnected facts supporting varying conclusions about a defendant’s conduct; rather, the State should highlight specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, demonstrate how the defendant’s actions were more consistent with guilt than innocence, thereby amounting to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
In this case, the court found that Donaruma could not have reasonably suspected defendant participated in a crime. “Before stopping defendant, the detectives did not interview anyone besides Pietrefesa: not even Izzo,” the court wrote. “The record amply supports the judge’s conclusion that, at the time of the stop, Donaruma was ‘still investigating the matter to see if a felony had actually been committed, whether by Izzo alone and/or by someone yet unknown, perhaps with the aid of defendant.’”
The court also cited that Donaruma’s statements reveal that Izzo was the object of the police’s focus at the time of the stop. It also noted that “there were alternatives available to Donaruma short of activating his overhead lights and pulling defendant over just to ask her questions.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to hold that the roadside statement given by defendant during the unlawful stop should have been excluded at trial. Accordingly, it affirmed the Appellate Division’s reversal of her convictions for hindering apprehension and false reporting. The court further concluded that “defendant’s roadside statement permeated the trial, severely affecting her credibility and ability to mount a defense to the separate burglary charge.” As a result, the court reversed that conviction as well.