Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Courts)
Police officers investigating crimes can’t stop a car merely because its occupants match the race and gender of a suspect, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday in an opinion upholding state prohibitions on racial profiling.
The state’s top court tossed the conviction of one man — and upheld the vacated sentence of another — in a Mercer County case stemming from the 2011 armed robbery of a 7-Eleven.
In the minutes after the crime was reported, police dispatchers described the suspects as “two Black males.” But such a vague description didn’t constitute enough reasonable suspicion for a Hamilton Township police sergeant to justify pulling a car over with three Black men inside, even though they later pleaded guilty to the crime, the court ruled.
“The only information the officer possessed at the time of the stop was the race and sex of the suspects, with no further descriptors,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote. “That information, which effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion, was insufficient to justify the stop of the vehicle and therefore does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
The car’s driver, Tyrone Miller, pleaded guilty to weapons offenses and agreed to testify against passengers Peter Nyema and Jamar Myers, according to the ruling. Nyema and Myers argued to suppress evidence police seized during the car stop, saying the stop was illegal because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion.
The trial court denied their motion, and both men eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery. But they separately appealed the trial court’s denial of their motion to suppress. Judges in Myers’ case backed the trial court and upheld his conviction, while judges in Nyema’s appeal reversed the trial court and vacated Nyema’s conviction and sentence.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling upheld the appellate ruling for Nyema and reversed the appellate ruling for Myers.
The state Attorney General’s office filed a brief in the case to remind the court of its 2005 directive prohibiting “racially-influenced policing.”
Attorney Alexander Shalom also filed a brief in the case on behalf of a group of Black ministers and other clergy, who contend race-based stops cause tremendous harm.
“In this case, police used the suspects’ race to stop them. They also happened to guess right, which is to say these happened to be the people who were involved in the robbery,” said Shalom, of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
“But,” he added, “you don’t want courts to say, ‘Well, they guessed right,’ because what that ignores is all the cases that don’t make it to courts, where people are seeking counsel from their pastors or their rabbis and say, ‘This happened to me, and it was humiliating, and it made me distrust the police.’ There are these real harms that flow from the practice of racial profiling, even in cases where police ‘get it right.’”
The case shows how police racial profiling persists, years after authorities have declared it unacceptable, Shalom said. An NJ Spotlight News analysis last year showed state troopers continue to arrest and charge more Black and Hispanic drivers than white ones.
Tuesday’s ruling sends a needed, strong reminder to law enforcement that racial profiling won’t be tolerated, Shalom added.
“The court recognizes that the harms are too great, and the Constitution simply forbids that sort of policing,” he said.
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