On May 8, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Union County case of State v. Dwight M. Nelson. The principal issue concerned whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity existed to justify the roadside detention of the defendant while the police waited for the arrival of a drug-sniffing dog.
Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote for a unanimous Court. He held in relevant part: In this appeal, the Court considers whether the wait for a canine unit’s arrival prolonged defendant’s traffic stop, and if so, whether the delay was justified by independent reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant possessed drugs.
New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Detective Jason Kazan learned that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) had passed along a tip that a silver Infinity FX35 with a particular plate driven by an African-American male would be traveling on the Turnpike and transporting a large quantity of marijuana. Thirteen minutes after receiving the tip, the NJSP spotted the car and made a traffic stop, citing the driver for failing to maintain his lane and following another vehicle too closely, both Title 39 violations.
Detective Kazan noticed an overwhelming smell of air freshener emanating from defendant Dwight Nelson’s vehicle and saw “Febreze” air fresheners located in several areas of the car. Based on his training and experience, Detective Kazan testified that air fresheners can be used as a masking agent for drugs. Nelson was then asked to step out of his car, where he was administered his Miranda warnings.
Once Detective Kazan began speaking with Nelson, he noticed that Nelson was sweating profusely, appeared visibly nervous, and was shaking and trembling. Detective Kazan also testified that Nelson’s story about where he was going changed during their conversation.
Even though the police were clearly motivated by the anonymous tip to stop the vehicle, our case law states that the subjective motivation of the police is irrelevant. The focus is on whether there was an objective basis for the stop. Here, the police followed the target vehicle until they could allege an objective basis via a motor vehicle violation.