On January 25, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Mercer County case of State v. Peter Nyema. The principal issue involved with the descriptions of robbery suspects created reasonable suspicion to justify the stop of the defendant’s vehicle.
Justice Pierre-Louis wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: In this case, the Court considers whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed when a police officer conducted an investigatory stop of the vehicle in which defendants Peter Nyema and Jamar Myers were riding with co-defendant Tyrone Miller. Around midnight on May 7, 2011, a 7-Eleven was robbed. At approximately 12:15 a.m., Sergeant Mark Horan of the Hamilton Township Police Department received a transmission about the armed robbery, which “had just occurred.” Horan testified that the dispatch described the suspects “as two Black males, one with a handgun.” Horan activated the lights and sirens on his marked patrol car and drove towards the 7-Eleven. Approximately three-quarters of a mile from the 7-Eleven, Horan saw a car approaching in the oncoming traffic lane. Using the spotlight mounted to his police vehicle to illuminate the inside of the car, he observed that the occupants were a man and a woman and let them pass. Sergeant Horan testified that as he continued on, a second set of headlights approached. He illuminated the inside of the vehicle and observed three Black males; “the description of the suspects was two Black males so at that point I decided to issue a motor vehicle stop on the second vehicle.” Horan later explained that he was also struck by the lack of reaction to the spotlight by the occupants of the car, and that he “took into consideration the short distance from the scene, as well as the short amount of time from the call” as he made the stop.
Police are required to have reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity before stopping a motor vehicle. Probable cause is required if the police are to prolong the stop to the extent that it becomes a de facto arrest as opposed to a brief, investigatory detention.