Patterson Belknap Wins Appeal of Pro Bono Client’s Conviction in the New Jersey Supreme Court

June, 2023 - New York, New York

On Tuesday, May 30, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously vacated the conviction of the firm's client for unlawful possession of a firearm.

The case began when a police officer stopped the car in which the client was riding on the sole basis that a random license-plate check revealed that the car’s registered owner had a suspended driver’s license.  As the officer approached the car, he saw that the driver (a 120-pound male) was not the car’s registered owner (a 180-to-200-pound female), eliminating the basis for the stop. Nevertheless, the officer prolonged the stop by asking for a driver’s license and the car’s registration and insurance papers. The officer then claimed to smell marijuana in the car and called for backup. The police ultimately searched the car and found a firearm under the driver’s seat, beneath several articles of clothing and trash. Although the client was in the passenger’s seat and he and the driver were borrowing the car, he was convicted of unlawfully possessing the firearm and was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the police officer violated the client's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures by prolonging the stop after it became reasonably apparent that the driver was not the car’s owner whose license was suspended. Once that was reasonably apparent, the officer was required to end the stop and communicate that the driver was free to drive away without further delay. On that basis, the Court held that the firearm evidence must be suppressed. This creates new Fourth Amendment law in New Jersey and appears to be the first ruling on this issue anywhere in the country. Additionally, the Court agreed with the firm's client that New Jersey’s model jury charge concerning constructive possession risks confusing jurors as to the state’s burden of proof and asked the New Jersey Model Criminal Jury Charges Committee to revise the charge accordingly.

With the firearm evidence suppressed, the state is expected to withdraw the unlawful-possession charge against the client, who has been incarcerated for this offense since June 28, 2019 and had approximately eleven years remaining on his sentence.  

The firm was referred to handle this criminal appeal through its longstanding partnership with the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. The firm began representing the client more than two years ago and presented briefs and oral argument in the New Jersey Supreme Court and the New Jersey Appellate Division.

To read the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision, please click here.