Saturday, March 28, 2015

New Jersey Cops May Not Order Passengers Out Of Car

Cops in New Jersey can order a driver out of his car, but not the passenger -- at least, not without good reason. That was the conclusion of an appellate panel of the New Jersey Superior Court last month after considering the case against Tawian Bacome, who was driving a Ford Bronco when a pair of detectives set up a sting operation in the late afternoon of April 29, 2011.

Woodbridge Detectives Brian Jaremczak and Patrick Harris suspected that the Bronco was involved in a drug deal. They were ready when it passed by on Route 9. They claimed Bacome's passenger was riding without a seatbelt and initiated a traffic stop. After Detective Harris said he saw Bacome reach under his seat, both the driver and passenger were ordered out of the car. Once the vehicle's door was open, the detectives saw a rolled up piece of paper and a small piece of Brillo pad, which they concluded was drug paraphenalia. This became justification for a search of the SUV, something they intended to do even before the stop began.

"I asked him out of the vehicle," Detective Jaremczak testified. "And at that time it became a narcotic investigation... I did believe that they went to Newark to purchase narcotics."

A trial judge considered this sufficient to uphold a conviction for possession of the crack cocaine that was subsequently found. The three-judge appellate panel majority disgreed becase there was no reason to order the passenger out of the car.

The majority reasoned that a driver could be ordered out of a car because of the importance of a police officer's safety. Here, the majority found the detectives were simply operating on a hunch. Failure to wear a seatbelt is a situation that hardly raises suspicion of looming danger.

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

No evidence of a threat to officer safety was presented at trial, and the driver's movement did not suggest the passenger was a danger.

"The order that [the passenger] exit the vehicle was impermissible and -- because it was the linchpin for all that followed -- defendant's motion to suppress what was thereafter discovered and seized should have been granted," Judge Fisher concluded.