TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Drugs found in a vehicle that were used for the arrest of two Lakewood men in 2015 were improperly obtained, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday as it chided prosecutors for not offering any justification for why the vehicle was stopped initially.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Walter Timpone concluded that, “by sitting on its hands at the evidentiary hearing and refusing to produce witnesses or evidence, the State left the trial judge no option but to suppress the evidence.”
The men had disputed the assertion by police that the car was stopped because it had a headlight out and the driver was acting evasively.
After noticing an odor of marijuana coming from the car, police got a warrant and found marijuana and cocaine inside. They charged Aharon Atwood and Shalom Mizrahi with drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. The latter crime is a second-degree offense, punishable by a prison term of five to 10 years.
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Atwood and Mizrahi denied their headlight was out and argued the evidence should be suppressed because it stemmed from an unconstitutional stop. Under New Jersey law, officers can stop a vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion that a criminal or motor vehicle violation has occurred.
The state, through the Ocean County prosecutor’s office, contended it shouldn’t have to justify the initial stop because the judge’s subsequent issuing of the warrant rendered the stop constitutional.
Instead, it argued, the defendants had the burden of proof to challenge the validity of the search warrant.
At an evidence hearing, prosecutors called no witnesses and offered no evidence, the Supreme Court wrote, but continued to press the burden of proof argument.
The state “held fast to the novel view that the judge who granted the warrant had blessed the pre-warrant conduct,” the court wrote. “The State must bear the burden of proving the legitimacy of the seizure that led to a later warrant and search — in this case the stop.
“Because the State did not carry its burden as to the stop, we affirm the suppression of the evidence seized in the course of the subsequent search as fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The state attorney general’s office declined to comment on the ruling Thursday.