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Search over suspected criminal activity legal, N.J. Supreme Court rules
TRENTON — Police had a good reason to stop and search a North Plainfield man after they saw him talking with a known drug dealer, the state Supreme Court ruled today.
During a 2005 investigation, police had a search warrant for a known drug dealer and saw him talk with North Plainfield resident Wendell Mann in a Wendy’s parking lot in Roselle. When police converged on them, Mann fled into the fast food restaurant and attempted to flush drugs down the toilet, authorities said.
Then police said they found additional drugs in his vehicle.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by former Justice John Wallace, said police had reason to suspect Mann was involved in criminal activity, and that justified chasing and searching him.
Deputy Attorney General Steven Yomtov said the state is pleased with the case’s outcome, which he described as in line with precedents.
"The officer had a basis to suspect criminality," he said. "Everything that followed was lawful conduct by the police."
A lawyer for Mann, Dennis Cipriano, criticized the decision, saying a conversation is not a good enough reason to stop and search someone.
"Was that enough?" Cipriano said. "The cop had nothing whatsoever to indicate my client was involved in any illegal activity."
Cipriano also said the Supreme Court should not have relied on the trial court’s fact finding, which he called flawed.
"Frankly, I think it’s a little bit dangerous," he said. "The court should not be bound by erroneous facts."
Mann was convicted in 2006 on drug charges, but appealed. An appeals court in June 2009 ruled the search was unlawful, noting: "The fact that two men spoke briefly in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant ... does not transfer suspicion to defendant. There was no testimony of an exchange of object or currency between the two men."
But the Supreme Court overturned that today.
"The totality of the circumstances gave rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion the defendant was engaged in criminal activity," Wallace wrote.
"Thus, the police properly pursued defendant into the Wendy’s restroom and lawfully seized the suspected drugs that defendant attempted to flush down the toilet."
In a statement Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said the Supreme Court "made the correct decision in reversing the Appellate Division’s misapplication of the law and misunderstanding of the officer’s observations of a drug deal going down."
Mann, now 33, was paroled after serving two years of his seven-year prison sentence.
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