New Jersey Supreme Court Clarifies When Prolonged Traffic Stop Violates the Fourth Amendment

In State v. Dwight M. Nelson, (A-60-17/080159) (Decided May 8, 2019), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the wait for a canine unit’s arrival prolonged the defendant’s traffic stop. However, the delay was justified by independent reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant possessed drugs and, therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Prolonged Traffic Stops Under State v. Dunbar

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. During a lawful traffic stop, which constitutes a seizure, a police officer is permitted to “inquire into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop.” If, during the course of the stop or as a result of the reasonable inquiries initiated by the officer, the circumstances give rise to suspicions unrelated to the traffic offense, an officer may broaden the inquiry and satisfy those suspicions.

In State v. Dunbar, 229 N.J. 521, 540 (2017), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that “an officer does not need reasonable suspicion independent from the justification for a traffic stop in order to conduct a canine sniff.” However, “an officer may not conduct a canine sniff in a manner that prolongs a traffic stop beyond the time required to complete the stop’s mission, unless he possesses reasonable and articulable suspicion to do so.” As the court further explained, “The critical question . . . is not whether [a] dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket . . . but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’ — i.e., adds time to — ‘the stop.’”

Facts of State v. Nelson

New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Detective Jason Kazan received a tip that a silver Infinity FX35 with a particular plate driven by an African-American male would be traveling on the Turnpike and transporting a large quantity of marijuana. Thirteen minutes after receiving the tip, the NJSP spotted the car and made a traffic stop, citing the driver for failing to maintain his lane and following another vehicle too closely, both Title 39 violations.

Detective Kazan noticed an overwhelming smell of air freshener emanating from defendant Dwight Nelson’s vehicle and saw “Febreze” air fresheners located in several areas of the car, which can be used as a masking agent for drugs. Nelson was then asked to step out of his car, where he was administered his Miranda warnings. Once Detective Kazan began speaking with Nelson, he noticed that Nelson was sweating profusely, appeared visibly nervous, and was shaking and trembling. Detective Kazan also testified that Nelson’s story about where he was going changed during their conversation. Detective Kazan also noticed that Nelson’s car was devoid of any personal belongings, aside from two very large bundles in the cargo hold of the car.

Based on his belief that Nelson’s car contained narcotics, Detective Kazan asked Nelson for permission to search the vehicle, but Nelson denied the request. Detective Kazan testified that he believed there was “reasonable articulable suspicion [that] there was crime afoot” and called for a canine unit to be brought to the scene at 7:21 p.m. The canine arrived at 7:58 p.m. and conducted a sniff of Nelson’s vehicle. The canine alerted the officers to the presence of narcotics in the rear hatch of the vehicle. Detective Kazan then placed Nelson under arrest and called for a tow truck. At 11:15 p.m., Detective Kazan secured a search warrant and conducted a search of Nelson’s vehicle, which led to the discovery of eighty pounds of marijuana.

Nelson moved to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle. The motion court recognized that “Detective Kazan extended the length of time of the initial motor vehicle stop and expanded the scope of the search beyond the limits of the motor vehicle stop,” but determined that Detective Kazan had reasonable and articulable suspicion to do so. The court denied Nelson’s motion, and Nelson pled guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, but stated that “the use of the canine unit did not prolong the stop more than reasonably required to complete [the] Title 39 enforcement mission.”

Court’s Decision in State v. Nelson

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that the evidence seized during the car’s subsequent search should not be suppressed. In reaching its decision, the court make addressed two issues: whether the wait for the canine unit’s arrival prolonged Nelson’s traffic stop, and, if so, whether the delay was justified by independent reasonable and articulable suspicion that Nelson possessed drugs at that time. It answered both questions in the affirmative.

The court first determined that Nelson’s stop was prolonged. “Here, after Nelson denied the detectives consent to search his vehicle, the detectives then ‘added time’ to Nelson’s traffic stop when they required him to wait thirty-seven minutes for the arrival of the canine unit,” the court wrote.

The court next considered whether a reasonable and articulable suspicion beyond that which justified the stop supported the canine sniff. It concluded that Detective Kazan’s observations, taking into account his training and experience, suggested criminal activity and provided the reasonable suspicion necessary to prolong Nelson’s stop to await the arrival of the canine unit. In support, the court wrote:

As Detective Kazan testified, he believed there was “reasonable articulable suspicion [that] there was crime afoot” based on the following factors: (1) the initial tip from ATF; (2) the moving violations observed; (3) Nelson’s nervous behavior; (4) Nelson’s conflicting trip itinerary; (5) the lack of any personal belongings in the vehicle; (6) the large bags in the cargo hold; (7) Nelson’s admission of prior narcotics arrests; and (8) the overwhelming smell of air freshener.

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