Posted on Nov 24, 2009

We have all seen it on the TV police dramas.  The police say to the suspect: "If you didn't do anything, why did you run?"  Well, despite the world of prime time crime drama, running is not enough for the police to stop you and search you.

Yesterday, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled in the case of State v. Williams, that evidence recovered from a defendant following an illegal bike chase had to be suppressed.  The defendant, seeing police in his neighborhood, quickly road away from the officers while reaching his hand into his pocket. Without any level of suspicion, other than his flight, the police chased him on foot and apprehended him.

The key issue becomes whether the police had the requisite "reasonable suspicion" that Williams was engaging in criminal activity to justify stopping him at that point. During the chase, the defendant discarded a small container from his pocket that was later determined to contain cocaine.  Williams was subsequently arrested and charged.

Williams moved to suppress the cocaine evidence.  Although trial court ruled that the defendant's behavior of riding away and reaching his hand into his pocket did not constitute "reasonable suspicion," it denied the motion because the defendant's failure to stop when commanded to by the officers constituted "obstruction."  Upon appeal, the court did not find "reasonable suspicion" for the stop.  It observed:

"Even if defendant's conduct in pedaling away from the officers could be viewed as flight once they ordered him to stop, as previously stated, "flight alone does not create [the] reasonable suspicion [required] for a stop[.]" Dangerfield , supra, 171 N.J. at 457.

The fact that defendant also put his hand in his pocket did not provide any additional foundation for an objectively reasonable suspicion that defendant had engaged or was about to engage in criminal activity. Putting a hand in a pocket is fairly common human conduct that does not generally involve the commission of a crime."

The court ultimately determined that the chase was illegal and held that evidence obtained during said chase and arrest may only be admissible if its recovery is substantially  separated from the police illegal conduct. For example, if after stopping the defendant, said defendant assaulted an officer in an attempt to escape, and the cocaine was found as a result of a search incident to arrest, then it would have been admissible.  The Court went on to conclude that in this case there was no such separation and ordered the evidence suppressed.

The bottom line here is that the police do not have enough reason to stop, detain, and question you simply because you fled the area upon seeing them; there must be something more to it.

Steven J. Richardson
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Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.