STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. THOMAS SHANNON

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. THOMAS SHANNON, Defendant–Respondent.

DOCKET NO. A–4901–12T3

Decided: April 11, 2014

Before Judges Espinosa, Koblitz and O'Connor. Mary R. Juliano, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher J. Gramiccioni, Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor, attorney;  Ms. Juliano, of counsel and on the brief). Mark F. Casazza argued the cause for respondent (Rudnick, Addonizio, Pappa & Casazza, P.C., attorneys;  Michael J. Pappa, of counsel and on the brief).

The State appeals, with leave granted, from the April 30, 2013 order granting defendant Thomas Shannon's motion to suppress the drugs he discarded in a police car after his arrest on a warrant that had been cancelled eighteen months before.   We affirm.

The facts are not seriously in dispute.   The Asbury Park police were suspicious because a car was idling on the street in a residential neighborhood in the area of three recent burglaries.   Defendant, who was the driver, told the police he was waiting for a friend who lived nearby.   Further police investigation shed doubt on that claim.   A police dispatcher informed the officer of an outstanding municipal warrant for defendant's arrest, based on outstanding fines and fees owed in connection with a municipal drug conviction.

The officer handcuffed defendant behind his back and placed him in the back of a police car.   Upon arrival at the police station, the officer noticed white residue on defendant's fingers and found cocaine and a small bag of marijuana in the back seat of the police car.   The officer testified that he checked the patrol car for contraband before beginning his patrol in accordance with department procedure and did not find anything unusual.   Defendant was indicted for third-degree possession of cocaine, N.J.S.A. 2C:35–10a(1), and second-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35–5b(2).

The motion judge denied defendant's motion to suppress prior to trial, holding that the drugs were seized in plain view after defendant was properly arrested on an outstanding arrest warrant.   After trial began in January 2013, defense counsel presented the judge with a letter received by defendant indicating that the arrest warrant had been recalled a year and a half before defendant was arrested.   Defendant agreed to waive any claim to double jeopardy, a mistrial was declared and the Asbury Park municipal administrator testified in a renewed suppression hearing.   She testified that the warrant for which defendant was arrested had been recalled on April 16, 2010 and a letter dated April 21, 2010 was sent to defendant, who was then in custody at Bayside State Prison on an unrelated charge.   A clerical error by municipal court staff resulted in a failure to reflect the change in the computer database.

When reviewing a motion to suppress, an appellate court “must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.”   State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).   Appellate review of legal determinations is plenary.  State v. Buckley, 216 N.J. 249, 260–61 (2013) (citing Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995)).

The State argues that the motion judge erred by suppressing the physical evidence because:  (1) the officer acted objectively reasonably when he arrested defendant based on a seemingly valid warrant and (2) the police were not involved in the database error.   Federal law supports this argument.   If, under federal law, police acted in good faith reliance on a seemingly valid search warrant, the evidence seized is admissible against the defendant at trial.   See United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984) (establishing that the exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence seized without valid probable cause so long as law enforcement acted in “good faith”);  see also Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1, 4, 115 S.Ct. 1185, 1187, 131 L. Ed.2d 34, 39 (1995) (holding that the federal constitution does not require suppression when evidence is discovered after an arrest pursuant to an arrest warrant, cancelled seventeen days before, but still active on the police records due to a court officer's error).

Recently, the United States Supreme Court again confirmed that the exclusionary rule was inapplicable where a defendant was arrested on a rescinded warrant that in error remained active on the police database.   Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 138, 129 S.Ct. 695, 698, 172 L. Ed.2d 496, 502 (2009).   In order for the exclusionary rule to apply under these facts, the Court opined that a defendant would need to show that the police recklessly maintained the warrant system or “knowingly made false entries” into the database.  Id. at 146, 129 S.Ct. at 703, 172 L. Ed.2d at 508.

New Jersey, however, departs from this federal “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule.  State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 159 (1987).   Our Court explicitly rejected the federal interpretation of the exclusionary rule as announced in Leon and held that an officer's good faith reliance on a constitutionally deficient search warrant violates Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.  Id. at 154.   Police may not circumvent the probable cause requirement even if the error was inadvertent.  Id. at 157.

Based on the Novembrino rejection of the “good faith exception,” we affirmed suppression of evidence found when a police officer, relying in good faith on a recalled warrant, arrested a defendant and discovered contraband incident to that illegal arrest.  State v. Moore, 260 N.J.Super. 12, 14 (App.Div.1992).   In Moore, the defendant was arrested based on a municipal warrant that had been “judicially marked ‘vacated’ ” twenty-seven days before the defendant's arrest.  Id. at 14.   Even though the arrest warrant was vacated, it remained marked active on police records due to administrative error.  Ibid. A search incident to that arrest revealed the defendant was in possession of cocaine.  Id. at 15.   It was unclear whether court personnel, the town police or the county sheriff's department was responsible for the mistake.  Id. at 15.   It was undisputed, however, that the officer who made the arrest did so “blamelessly” and in “good faith reliance” on the records available to him at the time he made the arrest.  Id. at 14.

Writing for the panel, Judge King noted that “our decision here does not turn on who was precisely at fault or on the comparative rectitude of the several actors from the law enforcement and court administrative communities.”  Id. at 16.   He stated that it served no purpose to inquire into whether the error was a “systematic bureaucratic failure[ ]” because the “defendant was arrested illegally.”  Ibid. As there was no valid warrant at the time the defendant was arrested, the court held that the fruits of the illegal arrest were inadmissible “even though the particular officer acted in good faith and without culpability.”  Ibid. Judge King stated that the State's argument for suppression is “no more than a plea for a ‘good faith’ exception to the exclusionary rule” which was clearly rejected by the Court in Novembrino.   Id. at 16–17.   The Moore panel found no factual distinction between the reliance on a bad search warrant, as in Novembrino, and reliance on a recalled arrest warrant.  Id. at 17.   The court therefore invoked the exclusionary rule in “this rare but appropriate case” in order to provide an “incentive for efficient, constitutionally-acceptable record keeping in the criminal justice system” just as invocation of the exclusionary rule in Novembrino sought to “motivate[ ] adherence to the probable cause standard for search warrants.”  Ibid. Judge King reiterated that the exclusionary rule is not only to deter future police activity but also to vindicate the fundamental guarantees of our state constitution.  Ibid.

The court recognized that “some delay in updating information is inherent and must be countenanced.”  Id. at 20.   The twenty-seven day lag between when the warrant was vacated and the defendant arrested, however, was not deemed reasonable for administrative purposes because defendant's rights “cannot bow to bureaucratic inefficiency.”  Ibid. Defendant was arrested on October 18, 2011 based on a warrant that should have been removed from the computer system on April 16, 2010.   This eighteen-month administrative lag is significantly longer than the twenty-seven day gap we found unacceptable and unconstitutional in Moore.

Whether this clerical error was on the part of court personnel or the police department is irrelevant in determining the admissibility of the contraband found after an illegal arrest.   New Jersey jurisprudence does not permit the State to use the fruits of an illegal arrest against a defendant even if the police acted reasonably.

The State argues that the objective reasonableness standard applies to a police officer's reliance on information maintained in official databases, whether to substantiate a stop or an arrest.   The State wrongly assumes that an investigative stop and a legal arrest require the same standard of review.   The State incorrectly relies on cases in which an officer's reliance in good faith on misinformation to conduct an investigative stop based on reasonable suspicion was deemed not to be constitutionally defective.

In State v. Pitcher, 379 N.J.Super. 308, 311–13 (App.Div.2005), the defendant pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol after a police officer stopped the defendant based on incorrect motor vehicle database information indicating that the owner of the car had a suspended license.   Based on this misinformation, the officer stopped the defendant and observed he was intoxicated.  Id. at 313.   The defendant did not dispute that the officer had probable cause to arrest him for drunk driving, but challenged the constitutionality of the stop because it was based on erroneous information.   Ibid. We stated that a brief motor vehicle stop, unlike an arrest, is constitutionally permissible so long as there is reasonable suspicion that a traffic offense occurred.  Id. at 314.

In State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264, 269 (2004), our Supreme Court upheld a warrantless seizure of a gun after police relied in good faith on a national computer database that wrongly identified the defendant as an “endangered” missing person.   Police found the defendant asleep in a car and questioned him.   Thinking he was a missing person, police conducted a safety frisk and discovered an unregistered handgun in the defendant's pocket.  Id. at 273.   The Court held that police acted reasonably in conducting a warrantless field inquiry or, alternatively, a warrantless stop under the community caretaking doctrine.  Id. at 275–76.   The Court observed that neither of these exceptions to the warrant requirement requires police to demonstrate probable cause before stopping an individual.  Id. at 276.   The Court held that police acted reasonably in conducting a field inquiry of the defendant based on reasonable suspicion to investigate whether the defendant was a missing person.  Id. at 278.

Neither Diloreto nor Pitcher controls here.   In both Diloreto and Pitcher, a “reasonableness” analysis was appropriate because both cases involved investigatory stops, not arrests, and did not fall “within the framework of an intended prosecution.”  Pitcher, supra, 379 N.J.Super. at 320;  Diloreto, supra, 180 N.J. at 280.   In both cases, reasonable reliance on misinformation was deemed sufficient to supply reasonable suspicion, not probable cause.

The State argues that in State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39 (2011), our Supreme Court accepted the concept of objective reasonableness when affirming the suppression of evidence in a situation where police arrested an individual based on a recalled arrest warrant.   The language of “objective reasonableness” was used by our Court in observing that, although the arresting officer acted in an objectively reasonable manner, the police dispatcher behaved patently unreasonably and therefore the drugs should be suppressed.  Id. at 47–48.   In Handy, a police dispatcher informed an inquiring police officer that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for a Jermaine Handy, even though inquiry was made regarding the defendant whose name was Germaine Handy.  Id. at 42–43.   The dispatcher also failed to tell the officer that Jermaine Handy had a different birth date than that provided by the defendant.  Id. at 42.   Based on this misinformation, the officer arrested the defendant in good faith and drugs were discovered on his person.  Ibid. The trial court denied the defendant's motion to suppress, finding the officer's action to be reasonable.  Id. at 43.   We reversed and our Supreme Court affirmed.  Id. at 44.   The Court noted that, even though the arresting officer acted reasonably, the dispatcher's actions were “plainly unreasonable.”  Id. at 47.   The Court stated that Herring and Evans were inapplicable because, unlike in the federal cases, the police department had not acted reasonably.   Id. at 52.   Our Supreme Court specifically declined to determine whether, if the dispatcher had acted reasonably, the arrest on a non-existent warrant would have violated the stricter requirements of the New Jersey Constitution as set forth in Novembrino.  Id. at 51–52.

We are now confronted with that very situation.   The police department did not behave in an unreasonable manner in that it relied on an ostensibly valid arrest warrant.   The error stemmed from municipal court staff who failed to recall the arrest warrant.   The eighteen-month lag between when defendant's warrant was recalled and when he was wrongfully arrested is patently unreasonable, more so than the twenty-seven day gap we found unconstitutional in Moore.   We stated in Moore that our constitution protects our citizens from arrest on an invalid arrest warrant, whether the error is made by the police or court staff.   We reaffirm here that constitutional rights cannot bow to administrative inefficiencies and decline to retreat from this protection given to the citizens of our State in Novembrino.  Novembrino provided the framework for our decision in Moore and is the basis for our decision here.   The exclusionary rule “has become an integral element” of our state constitutional guarantee to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures absent valid probable cause.  Novembrino, supra, 105 N.J. at 157.   Its “function is not merely to deter police misconduct [but] also serves as an indispensable mechanism for vindicating the constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches.”  Ibid. We affirm based on Novembrino, Moore and the New Jersey Constitution.

Affirmed.

PER CURIAM

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