Two Black men who went to prison for the armed robbery of a convenience store had their convictions reversed Tuesday by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled a police stop of their vehicle that led to their arrest was unconstitutional because it focused on their race and gender without additional identifying factors.
Among several organizations that submitted briefs to the Supreme Court in support of the defendants were an association of Black ministers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition of Latino Officers and the Georgetown Law Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative.
They argued that the stop essentially amounted to racial profiling since the other factors cited by police — including the location of the car in relation to the robbery and the occupants’ demeanor as they passed an officer responding to the scene — weren’t enough to create reasonable suspicion.
The state argued those factors plus the short lapse of time between the robbery and the stop were enough to justify it.
Peter Nyema and Jamar Myers were stopped as they drove with another man in Hamilton, outside Trenton, in May 2011. Minutes earlier, police had received a call about a robbery at a nearby 7-Eleven by two Black men who had fled on foot.
A responding police officer testified he had his forward-facing spotlight on as he approached the scene, and that he noticed a car carrying three Black men pass him with the occupants not registering any reaction to the bright light, which he deemed suspicious.
After the car was stopped, a search revealed dark clothing on the back seat floor matching a description given by witnesses, as well as about $600, the approximate amount stolen from the store. A handgun also was recovered from under the car’s hood.
Myers pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years, and Nyema pleaded guilty during his trial and was sentenced to 15 years. However, both men filed motions to have the evidence from the car suppressed, claiming the evidence was seized illegally because the stop wasn’t based on reasonable suspicion.
Separate appeals courts split on the issue, with one siding with Nyema and vacating his conviction and the other denying Myers’ appeal and letting his conviction stand.
In its ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court held that police didn’t have reasonable suspicion to stop the car given the information they possessed at the time, which “effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion.”
“The initial description did not provide any additional physical descriptions such as the suspects’ approximate heights, weights, ages, clothing worn, mode of transportation, or any other identifying feature that would differentiate the two Black male suspects from any other Black men in New Jersey,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote for a unanimous court. “If that description alone were sufficient to allow police to conduct an investigatory stop of defendants’ vehicle, then law enforcement officers would have been permitted to stop every Black man within a reasonable radius of the robbery.”
Nyema was released from prison in late 2020, according to the state Department of Corrections website, after the appeals court vacated his conviction. Myers pleaded guilty to an unrelated murder charge and in 2017 was sentenced to 30 years in prison with no parole.
A message seeking comment was left with the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, which argued for the state.