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Monday, July 15, 2024

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Defendant Loses Appeal on Weapon Charge

By Vince Conti

TRENTON – It all started with the stop of a driver at 2:30 a.m. in Wildwood March 27, 2016. The driver was pulled over for failure to have headlights turned on. During a discussion with the officer, the driver complained that he had been stopped while a white man was ingesting heroin just blocks away in a convenience store parking lot.

Seer’s Eventual Arrest 

The patrol officer who made the stop and issued a summons to the driver of the car without headlight also radioed the information on the potential violation in the convenience store lot and a different officer responded. Only one vehicle, a truck, was in the lot. 
Police later testified that the white man was crouched over with his head nearly resting on the steering wheel. The driver, Trevor Seer, responded with a startled look, as the officer approached the vehicle on the passenger side.
Following initial questions, the officer circled the vehicle to the driver’s side, noting motions that looked like the defendant was stuffing something down the crease of the seat. The officer later testified that he became concerned for his safety because he did not know what the defendant was manipulating into the seat crease.
When the officer told the defendant to exit the vehicle, a few bags of heroin fell to the ground. The defendant was arrested at that point. 
An initial search pursuant to the arrest turned up no additional evidence. A subsequent search at police headquarters found a Glock 45 handgun in the defendant’s waistband. 
A search of the truck turned up pills, a powdery substance thought to be a controlled dangerous substance (CDS), drug paraphernalia and four knives, characterized as “weapon knives.”
Seer was charged with various offenses, including CDS possession and second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, the gun.

Cooperation, Plea Deal and Sentencing

In July 2016, Seer filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered after the officer ordered him to exit the truck. He argued that the police had no “reasonable suspicion” to order him out of the vehicle. The judge ruled against the motion, saying that the totality of the evidence justified the officer’s order to exit the truck.
Seer accepted a negotiated plea agreement and pleaded guilty to two charges, including a second-degree charge for certain person not to possess a weapon and hindering apprehension. The plea agreement requested a sentence of 15 years, with 10 years’ parole disqualification.
Seer subsequently cooperated with police on the investigation of a bank robbery and his testimony materially aided the prosecution of an individual for the crime. 
When Seer finally came up for sentencing, he received eight years, with a four-year parole disqualifier. His plea agreement did not prohibit his appeal of the decision against his motion to suppress evidence derived after he was ordered to exit the vehicle in 2016.
His appeal was submitted May 2, 2022, and decided three weeks later May 23. The decision of the lower court to deny his motion to suppress was affirmed by the Appellate Court.

A Terry Stop

The Appellate Court decision went into detail on the circumstances of the initial contact between Seer and police in the convenience store parking lot. The determination of when the encounter escalated from a field inquiry to an investigative stop was key to the decision, as was the determination of the level of responsible suspicion of criminal activity.
In a warrantless stop and search, the state carries the burden to prove that any search and seizure falls within recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. Any investigative stop and temporary detention is also known as a Terry stop based on a 1968 Supreme Court decision.
A field inquiry by a police officer who may ask questions of an individual is an instance when that individual need not respond and is free to leave. In an investigative stop, movement is temporarily restricted.
The court determined that the circumstances escalated to an investigative stop when the officer ordered the defendant out of the truck. It also found that, at that point, the officer had the requisite reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Court: Sentence Not Excessive

Seer’s appeal also rested on a second point. He claimed that his sentence was excessive and undervalued his cooperation in the bank robbery case.
The court found that the sentencing judge took proper account of the mitigating circumstances. 
It also noted that Seer previously had nine arrests, three findings of guilt and three pleas. Seer had been previously charged with indictable offenses for aggravated assault and CDS possession with intent to distribute.
In response to Seer’s argument that he had turned his life around, the court noted his continued use of heroin.  
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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