Jun 10

Seizure Of Postal Packages


This matter involves the allegations that my client mailed three boxes from California to New Jersey addressed to herself containing 9 pounds of marijuana. This is a warrantless search so we start with the proposition that the seizure is presumptively unreasonable. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980); State v. Valencia, 93 N.J. 126, 133 (1983). As such, it is the State’s burden to file a brief to justify the search and to articulate if the case falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.

The State and the Court was provided a copy of Judge Peim’s opinion in State v. Cotto wherein the Court analyzed seizures by postal authorities and the reasonableness thereof. The facts of Cotto are similar to this case in that postal authorities seized a package, took it out of the flow of being processed, sorted and delivered, and detained it for an unreasonable amount of time, i.e. two and a half hours in Cotto . In this case, the Defense showed that the postal authorities detained the packages in California, removed them from being processed, sorted and delivered, and what started out as a detention became a seizure which lasted for more than three days before postal police and state police attempted to deliver the packages to the Defendant.

It is well settled law that the postal authorities must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) in order to detain a package. Reasonable suspicion is defined as “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity”. Ornelas v. U.S., 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1976)(citations omitted). See also State v. Williams, 192 N.J. 1, 9 (2007) for the New Jersey equivalent analysis. It is also settled law that the “reasonable, articulable suspicion Terry standard” applies to the seizure of personal property such as mail. Mail and packages in the normal flow of being processed, sorted and delivered should be free from inspection by State or postal authorities. See, Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 (1878). Warrantless diversions and detentions of mail become an unreasonable seizure within the context of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249, 252 (1970). That being said, postal authorities may temporarily divert a mailed package if they have reasonable suspicion that it relates to or contains criminal activity. Id. at 251-252

In this case, Postal Inspector Wang indicated that he received a “phone call” from an unidentified postal inspector from California regarding three suspicious packages. P.I. Wang stated he was informed the packages were similar in size and weight, from the same sender and to the same recipient. P.I. Wang agreed to receive the packages in his office in Newark for further follow up. All three boxes were delivered in a single sack overnight. Thereafter, P.I. Wang contacted the NJ State Police and advised them of the situation. The packages were then held from March 26 to March 28 before delivery was attempted. All that time, the packages remained outside the flow of postal delivery and what started as a detention quickly became an unreasonable seizure.

It is undisputable that the seizure occurred in California and the packages were taken out of the flow of being processed, sorted and delivered when the unknown postal inspector detained the packages and had them “delivered in a single sack overnight” to P.I. Wang who received the packages in his office in Newark. It is also clear that the “detention” occurred over a period of days and well beyond the scope of reasonableness pursuant to Terry and United States v Place, 462 U.S. 696, 698-99 (1983) where a 90 minute warrantless detention of defendant’s luggage was deemed unreasonable. Indeed, on April 21, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Rodriguez v. United States wherein the Court held that investigatory detentions must be brief and akin to a Terry stop and a seven to eight minute delay in order to do a dog sniff was unreasonable. The Court found that the detention could not last longer than it took to write the traffic ticket. See also, State v. Henderson, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. Lexis 383, 11-12 (App. Div. March 28, 2014)(citing Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 406 (2005)).

Equally troubling was the unknown postal inspector in California. Reasonable, articulable suspicion must arise prior to the seizure of the package. United States v, Place, 462 U.S. 696, 698-99 (1983) Moreover, the “totality of circumstances” must be taken into account in determining if a detention and resulting seizure was lawful. U.S. v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981). This includes objective observations, other source information, considerations of patterns of illegal activity, and inferences made from these sources by trained and experienced law enforcement officers. Id. How could the Court make a determination of reasonable, articulable suspicion when the Court must evaluate that on a totality of the circumstances and give weight to the postal inspector’s “knowledge and experience” as well as “rational inferences that could be drawn from the facts objectively and reasonably viewed in light of the officer’s expertise” State v. Arthur, 149 N.J. 1, 10 (1997). The State could not even identify the postal inspector in California who made these determinations. The State could not rely on P.I. Wang for this analysis since the seizure occurred in California and P.I. Wang did not determine that the packages were “suspicious”.

Moreover, P.I. Wang stated “there are no policies or procedures regarding this type of incident” so the purported packages being the “similar in size and weight, from the same sender to the same recipient” is really of no importance. The Defense argued that there is nothing inherently suspicious with packages of the same size and weight from the same sender to the same recipient so the determination of suspiciousness was nothing more than a hunch. See State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 247 (2007). Unless there was some clairvoyance involved, the packages could have contained anything.

In summary, the State could not establish a reasonable articulable suspicion to seize the packages. The packages were illegally removed from the flow of being processed, sorted and delivered. Finally, the detention of the packages for three days or more is way beyond the scope of Terry and United States v Place, 462 U.S. 696, 698-99 (1983) and transmuted into an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Indictment dismissed!

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