On January 31, 2017, Justice Timpone, wrote for a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of State v. Tawain Bacome. In this appeal, the Court clarified the circumstances under which police officers may require a passenger in an automobile to exit a vehicle after a valid stop.
In April 2011, detectives observed defendant driving a blue Ford Bronco. S.R., the owner of the Bronco, was riding in the front passenger seat. The detectives knew the men used and dealt narcotics and the police had received complaints of traffic to and from defendant’s apartment, which is often indicative of narcotics activity. The detectives followed the Bronco, losing sight of it shortly after arriving in an area of Newark known for crime and drug trafficking. They drove back to Woodbridge and, about an hour later, observed the Bronco. The detectives observed S.R. in the passenger seat not wearing his seatbelt and conducted a traffic stop.
Once they stopped the Bronco, one detective approached the driver’s side while the other approached the passenger’s side. The first detective reported that he saw defendant lean forward as if he were reaching under his seat and immediately ordered defendant to exit the vehicle. The second detective then ordered S.R. out of the passenger’s seat. Both occupants complied.
The detectives questioned the men separately about their destination; they gave contradictory responses. Because S.R. no longer occupied the passenger’s seat, the second detective was able to glimpse a rolled-up piece of paper in the shape of a straw and a small piece of Brillo-like steel wool, items consistent with narcotics use. A detective obtained S.R.’s written consent to search the car, where he found crack cocaine and narcotics-related paraphernalia. The detectives placed defendant and S.R. under arrest.
The facts of this case highlight the need to remain silent in the face of police questioning. The ideal response would be to politely tell every officer that attempts to question you that you would rather not answer any questions without an attorney present. A common police response would be to tell you that your silence is suspicious but it is important to keep in mind that any alleged suspicion does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion and therefore will not justify any type of search. Another common police response is to state that they are going to search the car of they do not get answers. The proper response is to say nothing, permit them to do so, and then hire a capable attorney to get the evidence suppressed.