N.J. Supreme Court: ‘High-crime area’ not enough cause for police stop and frisk
Law enforcement officers need more than a hunch and a vague claim they’re policing “a high crime area” to stop someone they suspect committed a crime, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a decision civil rights champions hailed as a victory against unlawful stops.
In a decision split along party lines, Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis reversed lower courts’ decisions that upheld the lawfulness of Camden County officers’ 2019 stop and frisk of a pedestrian, and ruled that evidence officers seized during his arrest must be suppressed.
“The state must do more than simply invoke the buzz words ‘high-crime area’ in a conclusory manner to justify investigative stops,” Pierre-Louis wrote. “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).”
Jenny-Brooke Condon, a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law and director of its Equal Justice Clinic, said the ruling means officers will have to show evidence that an area is high-crime if they expect a stop based on that claim to pass muster in court. Condon, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, filed briefs in the case.
“For so long, not only in New Jersey but nationwide, we have seen cases like this that are really very weak cases used to justify stop and frisk,” Condon said. “Often when officers invoke ‘high-crime area,’ it’s not correlated with actual crime rates, and it’s more often correlated with the racial composition of an area. This is a significant step toward preventing the over-policing of Black and brown communities in New Jersey based upon the officer’s mere invocation of that phrase, which opens the door to implicit bias and all sorts of problems.”
In the case in question, police were patrolling what they described as a “high-crime area” in January 2019 when they spotted three people outside a vacant house who walked away when officers approached, according to the ruling.
Officer Joseph Goonan later testified that — based on his training, 20 years of experience, and his belief that the vacant house was used for the sale of drugs and weapons — he suspected the pedestrians were involved in drug-dealing.
Officers stopped Nazier D. Goldsmith on a walkway leading to the rear of the house, blocked his path, and began questioning him, according to the ruling. Goonan later testified that Goldsmith became nervous, started sweating and shaking, and told officers: “I appreciate if you guys didn’t pat me down.”
Goonan patted him down and found a handgun and drugs, according to the ruling. After his arrest, Goldsmith moved to suppress the evidence Goonan seized during the frisk, saying both the stop and the frisk were unlawful.
The state Supreme Court agreed with Goldsmith, who was represented by the state Office of the Public Defender.
“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.”
In the dissent, Justice Lee Solomon agreed that Goonan’s “nonspecific” and “confusing” testimony didn’t support his claim that the stop occurred in a high-crime area.
But some evidence presented in lower courts wasn’t included in the court record the justices reviewed, Solomon noted in his dissent, which Justice Anne Patterson joined.
Complete case records are critically important to ensure judges know the facts of encounters that can require police to “make split second decisions in a fluid situation” that can be “murky and difficult,” Solomon noted.
“Such encounters are not the most amenable to appellate review of cold, paper records,” he wrote.
To Condon, the ruling serves as an opportunity for state authorities to offer law enforcement agencies guidance on how to better define high-crime areas.
“There’s a lot of technology available that logs and maps the actual locations of criminal conduct,” Conlon said. “I think that the attorney general could shape for police officers and police departments what sort of evidence the attorney general thinks is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of New Jersey citizens.”