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The New Jersey Appellate Division has just tossed a gun possession conviction, saying that the "stop and frisk" was based solely on an anonymous tip and the defendant's "unusual" body movements, which were simply insufficient for "a reasonable suspicion," and therefore the search was warrantless.

One night in September 2019, two Jersey City street crimes police officers were dispatched to an area where they were told there was a Black man with a gun on the north side of the street wearing a gray sweatshirt with the word GAP in blue written across the chest and either a black face mask or a ski mask rolled up on top of his head.

The officers got that information from Detective Seals, who got it from Detective Sheehan who apparently got it from a confidential informant. Neither officer had spoken to Detective Sheehan, and they knew nothing about the confidential informant.

The officers spotted Noah Hill, a Black man wearing a gray GAP sweatshirt with a ski mask rolled up on his head, leaning against a car on the north side of the street. 

Hill wasn't doing anything illegal when they spotted him, and the officers didn't see a gun or even any bulge under his shirt as they approached. However, he did turn away from them toward the car. He dropped his hands, however, he never even got to his waist, because, in the only two or three seconds that passed between the time they initially saw Hill to the time they stopped him, one officer grabbed his hands so his partner could perform a pat down. In his waistband, the officers recovered a semi-automatic handgun.

Hill filed a Motion to Suppress the Evidence, arguing that the search was warrantless, and that his case was virtually indistinguishable from the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Florida v. J.L., in which the Court held "an anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun is - without more - insufficient to support a "stop and frisk."

In J.L., an anonymous caller reported to the Miami-Dade Police that a young black male standing at a particular bus stop and wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun. The police went to the place, saw a Black man wearing the shirt the caller described and arrested him, although the officers had no reason to suspect him of illegal conduct. 

The U.S. Supreme Court deemed the stop violated the Fourth Amendment because "the officers' suspicion that J.L. was carrying a weapon arose not from any observations of their own but solely from a call made from an unknown location by an unknown caller." As Justice Ginsburg explained, because "the anonymous call concerning J.L. provided no predictive information," it "left the police without means to test the informant's knowledge or credibility. That the allegation about the gun turned out to be correct does not suggest that the officers, prior to the frisks, had a reasonable basis for suspecting J.L. of engaging in unlawful conduct. All the police had to go on in was the bare report of an unknown, unaccountable informant who neither explained how he knew about the gun nor supplied any basis for believing he had inside information about J.L."

At the hearing, the officers testified that they chose to stop him specifically, because, although there were other people on the street near him, he "stood out" because "when you see exactly what you're being relayed, that goes right off right in your head, like, okay, that, you know, that's it."

The officers added that they grabbed Hill "within a second or two because, you know, once we see him, we want to get on him quick . . . so he doesn't get the opportunity to pull a gun on us or discard one." 

The Hudson County Superior Court judge denied the Motion to Suppress Evidence, distinguishing this case from the U.S. Supreme Court case based on Hill's "additional act, of reaching towards his waistband in an unnatural way" and attempting to avoid being seen by the officers. The judge reasoned that Hill "reaching towards his waistband, his back turned to the officers, surely [amounted] to unusual movement in light of the surrounding circumstances," which "along with the corroborated physical and geographic description of Hill, and his location, justified the pat-down search."

Following the denial of his motion to suppress evidence, Hill pleaded guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, and was sentenced to two years' probation conditioned on his serving 364 days in the county jail concurrent to an identical sentence on an unrelated indictment.

Hill appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that the officer's testimony makes clear beyond doubt the police lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop and frisk of defendant.

Judges Accurso and Firko have now agreed, and reversed the conviction.

The Appellate judges accepted the trial court's factual finding that Hill "reaching towards his waistband, his back turned to the officers" constituted "unusual movement in light of the surrounding circumstances," however, citing the Fourth Amendment, they disagreed that "unusual movement" was sufficient to render this stop, for the reason being that it was based on an anonymous tip about a Black man with a gun.

The Appellate panel agreed with Hill that the facts of his case are exactly like the facts of the J.L. case.

"The police had no more to go on here when they stopped defendant. Hill turning away from the police as they approached and dropping his hands was only concerning to the officer because the anonymous tipster claimed defendant had a gun. But a man standing on the street, leaning against a car who turns away from the officers and drops his hands does not, standing alone, give rise to reasonable suspicion. As we noted in State v. Stampone, if facts like those "either separately or collectively, but without more, were sufficient to support a Terry stop, a significant portion of our urban population would be susceptible to constant police investigation. In our view that is an entirely unacceptable proposition."

"Because Hill's "unusual movement" did not give rise to reasonable suspicion sufficient to support the officers grabbing defendant to perform a pat-down, that is a Terry stop, and it obviously didn't add anything to "the bare report of an unknown, unaccountable informant" that defendant had a gun, just as in the J.L. ruling.

"Hill's conduct coupled with the anonymous tip might have been enough to permit the officers to approach him to ask him some questions, but only because a field inquiry of that sort requires no suspicion at all. As our Supreme Court reminded in State v. Shaw, "people, generally, are free to go on their way without interference from the government. That is, after all, the essence of the Fourth Amendment - the police may not randomly stop and detain persons without particularized suspicion." Because the officers lacked that particularized suspicion when they seized defendant based on the "report of an unknown, unaccountable informant," just as the Nation's highest court did in J.L., we reverse the denial of his suppression motion."

This reversal effectively tosses out the conviction. If the Prosecutor wants a new trial, they will not be able to present the seized gun as evidence.

This is yet another case where higher courts declared, "cops in the Garden State are not free to do as they please."

As previously reported here on FAA News, the New Jersey Supreme Court tossed a conviction which was based on a State Trooper who smelled marijuana in the passenger compartment of the car. After his initial search of the passenger compartment of the car yielded no results, he proceeded to search the engine compartment and trunk, where he ultimately found weapons. The court ruled that searching the trunk in this case crossed the boundaries of the warrant exception and therefore the search was with warrantless.

On the very same day, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court decision suppressing the seizure of multiple guns, including automatic weapons, over 100,000 rounds of ammunition, and illegal drugs from a home and garage - all because officers failed to first obtain a warrant, and the circumstances did not satisfy any warrant exception cases.

As previously reported here on FAA News, the Appellate Division tossed out a drug possession conviction, finding that the law enforcement officers failed to first obtain a search warrant and their Prosecutor failed to prove there were "exigent circumstances" that made it impracticable for them to obtain a warrant.

As previously reported here on FAA News, the New Jersey Supreme Court tossed a five-year incarceration term of Anthony Miranda.

While Miranda was placed under arrest and transported to jail, police searched his property without a warrant.

"Police can only search someone’s property or belongings without a warrant in exigent circumstances, including if a suspect is likely to flee, hurt someone, or destroy evidence and if police are in “hot pursuit” of a suspect during the time it would take to secure a warrant," wrote Justice Anne Patterson.

As previously reported here on FAA News, back in March 2023, the Supreme Court decreed that police stopping motorists to investigate crimes cannot search their cars without a warrant unless the circumstances that sparked their suspicion were “unforeseeable and spontaneous.”

Additionally, in January 2022, the court ruled that police who arrest people outside their homes can’t then enter and search their homes without a warrant unless there’s a clear potential of life-threatening danger to officers on the scene.

These case ruling may be very applicable to a current Lakewood matter.

As previously reported here on FAA News, shocking footage shows Lakewood Police Detective Sergeant Tyler Distefano violating a Lakewood resident's constitutional rights numerous times - at 2am!

Upon arrival at the residence, just before 2am on a Saturday night, officers shone flashlights into the vehicle in the driveway and decided that they had sufficiently seen "evidence of a crime" inside the vehicle.

The resident of the home called out over the doorbell "can you get off my property?," to which they responded "no sir." The resident pressed on, asking, "do you have a warrant to be here?" The officers shocking responded "it doesn't work that way. I don't need a warrant to be here!"

They used their "evidence of a crime" - which they searched with no warrant - as a basis to then arrest the resident.

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