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New Jersey appeals court: Cops can't routinely target passengers

In 2011, two Woodbridge police detectives had their eye out for a particular Ford Bronco. They had received some calls from concerned citizens claiming that there was an unusual amount of activity at the Bronco owner's apartment, and they suspected drug activity.

One late afternoon in April, the detectives spotted two men in the Bronco heading toward Newark. They suspected the men were on their way to purchase illegal drugs and "would be back very shortly," so waited at the border of Woodbridge and Rahway.

Sure enough, back comes the Bronco. The passenger wasn't wearing a seatbelt, which gave the detectives the excuse they needed to pull the Bronco over. During the stop, they ordered both the driver and the passenger out of the car. When the car door opened, the detectives found a scrap of Brillo pad and a rolled-up piece of paper, which the detectives concluded were drug paraphernalia. A fuller search netted them a pipe and crack cocaine hidden in cigarette packs.

Did the cops have the right to order the passenger out of the vehicle and search him?

During his trial, the friend asked the court to suppress the evidence against him on the grounds that the police didn't have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity before they searched him. The trial judge disagreed, but a panel of the New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division recently overruled that decision.

The appeals court said that the cops needed one of two things in order to justify ordering the passenger out of the car. The first was indeed a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity in progress. The second was a reasonable fear that the passenger posed a danger to the officers. They had reasonable suspicion of a seatbelt violation, which justified the traffic stop itself but not, the court said, a search of the passenger.

Those detectives may have thought they had good evidence of suspicious drug activity at the Bronco owner's home, but not the passenger's. A rolled-up piece of paper and a scrap of Brillo pad weren't so obviously drug paraphernalia that they could justify the search.

"Much of what motivated this stop and investigation was the detectives' assumption that defendant and [passenger] were narcotics users or sellers or both," the court said. "The record contains nothing but rumor and innuendo to support that assertion."

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New Jersey appeals court: Cops can't routinely target passengers | The Law Offices of Palumbo & Renaud