April 27, 2011

Error by police dispatcher in invalid arrest warrant requires suppression of evidence under NJ Constitution. State v. Germaine A. Handy (A-108-09)

State v. Germaine A. Handy (A-108-09) Decided April 26, 2011

Long, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

The issue in this appeal is whether evidence uncovered during a search incident to an arrest should be suppressed because the arrest was based on incorrect information about the existence of a warrant that was provided by police dispatch to an officer in the field.

Police stopped Germaine A. Handy and others for riding their bicycles on the sidewalk in violation of a city ordinance. Because they did not have identification, Officer Drogo asked for their names and birthdates. Handy spelled out his name, gave his address in Millville, and provided his date of birth, March 18, 1974. When Officer Drogo radioed dispatch with this information, the dispatcher informed him that there was an outstanding warrant for Handy. Based on that information, Officer Drogo arrested him, and a search incident to the arrest uncovered cocaine. Officer Drogo later discovered that the ten-year-old warrant had been issued to Jermaine O. Handy of Los Angeles, California, and it listed the birth date as March 14, 1972. Officer Drogo left a voicemail with the court that had issued the warrant, but he received no reply. Handy was charged with drug offenses and released.

Handy moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police acted unreasonably in linking him to the warrant. The trial court denied the motion. The court found that the dispatcher was aware of the discrepancies and acted unreasonably, but that the more important factor was that Officer Drogo acted reasonably in light of the information given to him. Handy pled guilty and was sentenced. On appeal of the denial of his suppression motion, the Appellate Division reversed. State v. Handy, 412 N.J. Super. 492 (App. Div. 2010). The panel agreed that the dispatcher acted unreasonably in conveying the warrant information to Officer Drogo, despite substantial discrepancies, and that Officer Drogo acted reasonably. However, the panel concluded that the police were responsible, through the unreasonable actions of the dispatcher, for conveying inaccurate information to the arresting officer; and that the exclusionary rule must be applied beyond officers in the field and to police employees who act unreasonably in supplying critical, but inaccurate, information.

The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 203 N.J. 95 (2010).

HELD: The dispatcher’s conduct -- advising an officer on the scene that there was an outstanding warrant when the warrant contained a differently spelled name and a different date of birth -- was objectively unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution. Evidence uncovered during the search incident to the arrest must be suppressed.

1. The legal issue here is whether the evidence uncovered during the search should be suppressed. Under the Fourth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution, the test is whether the conduct was objectively reasonable in light of the facts known to police at the time of the search. That standard affords police necessary latitude to respond to criminality while deterring unreasonable conduct and protecting citizens from government overreaching.

2. Although Officer Drogo’s behavior was reasonable, the dispatcher’s actions were not. She knew the warrant was over ten years old and referenced Jermaine Handy, a California resident, not Germaine Handy, and bore a different date of birth. She could have reasonably reported the information on the warrant or said no warrant matched the information given by Officer Drogo. Instead, she reported that a warrant was issued for Handy, who was stopped for riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. Her constitutionally infirm conduct led to an arrest and ensuing search that could not have occurred based on an ordinance violation.

3. In Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135 (2009), the United States Supreme Court addressed application of theexclusionary rule to conduct by a person other than the officer executing a warrant. In that case, a clerk conveyed to the officer that there was a warrant, but it was later discovered that the warrant had been recalled five months earlier. Because of a bookkeeping error, that information had not been entered into the computer database. The Court affirmed the decision denying Herring’s motion to suppress because the error was isolated negligence attenuated from the arrest and the officer’s reliance on the database was not objectively unreasonable; thus, the deterrent effect of suppression was minimal and the principles underlying the exclusionary rule would not be advanced. In Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995), the Court declared that where the mistaken conduct that led to the arrest was attenuated (it was attributable to a judicial employee who had no stake in the outcome of criminal prosecutions), suppression would not deter police misconduct, and, thus application of the exclusionary rule would be unwarranted.

4. The State properly concedes that this is not an Evans case because the dispatcher was not attenuated from the arrest. This case also is not governed by Herring because, like Evans, its focus was on an attenuated clerical error in a database upon which police officials reasonably relied. That is not the situation here. First, the dispatcher was integral to effectuating the arrest. Second, presumably the database was accurate and there actually is a warrant for Jermaine O. Handy of Los Angeles. Rather, the dispatcher provided the wrong information when a reasonably prudent person would have advised the officer of the discrepancies. Third, suppressing the evidence here would have important deterrent value, underscore the need for training officers and dispatchers to focus on detail, and assure that our constitutional guarantees are given full effect. The dispatcher’s slipshod conduct, which clearly would not have been tolerated had the officer committed it, was objectively unreasonable and failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment or the New Jersey Constitution.

5. Officer Drogo was confronted with persons who had ridden bicycles on a sidewalk. If ever there was a case in which a dispatcher had the luxury of time and care, this was it. The argument that an exclusionary rule analysis is limited to an arresting officer’s conduct is wrong. Otherwise, police operatives such as dispatchers would be free to act unreasonably, so long as the last person in the chain does not do so. Finally, the notion that a warrant with a wrong name and a wrong date of birth is close enough to justify the arrest of a citizen fails to satisfy the objective reasonableness standard. The dispatcher was unreasonable in failing to take further steps when she recognized that she did not have a match on the warrant check. Thus, suppression of the evidence is required.

The judgment of the Appellate Division reversing the order denying suppression is AFFIRMED.

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