The cops said he looked nervous and was shaking uncontrollably.
Apparently in Parsippany, that’s enough probable cause for the police to search your vehicle for drugs.
David Wheat, then 20 years old, was driving his sister to hand in a term paper at her college when he was stopped by two Parsippany police officers in 2017. The offense: driving in the left lane.
Soon, police swarmed his Honda Civic. A K-9 was called in. A routine traffic stop on Route 46 inexplicably turned into a scene from “Cops.” Wheat, who doesn’t have a criminal record, would find himself under the microscope of five officers for more than an hour as he and his sister stood on the side of the road.
But these weren’t just any cops. They were part of Parsippany’s Crime Prevention Unit, operating under an illegal quota system that pushed them to make questionable searches and arrests, according to court documents and a source within the department. The patrol officers dressed and acted like detectives, despite not holding the rank, tasked with rooting out drug dealers and other street crime.
They referred to themselves as the “God Squad.”
More than 40 minutes into the stop, a sergeant allegedly spotted an empty wax fold that typically holds heroin under the front passenger seat — even though the K-9 and other officers hadn’t found anything inside the car.
Wheat was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. But his case — scheduled for trial in July — could instead focus on the officers who arrested him.
The Pine Brook resident filed an explosive lawsuit in 2019 that accuses the cops of planting the heroin fold. It was “placed there by defendants after no evidence was found, resulting in … police misconduct and manufacturing of evidence,” reads the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Morris County.
And police dashboard camera footage raises even more questions about the stop. It captures a cryptic conversation between officers Edward Elston and James Seeger after the arrest in which they appear to discuss something unsettling involving “the fold,” according to video obtained by NJ Advance Media.
Claiming cops planted evidence is a “big accusation to levy against a police officer,” said Alissa Marque Heydari, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
“I think it’s a serious accusation that must be taken seriously and investigated,” said Marque Heydari, now the deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Each case is different, and the strength of the case will depend on the specific circumstances.”
The actions of police officers have been scrutinized since George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, and only more so after the recent death of Daunte Wright by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Since Floyd’s death, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has enacted a flurry of police reforms in New Jersey aimed at enhancing transparency and curbing police misconduct.
At the same time, what constitutes probable cause has come into question since marijuana became legal in the state, possibly affecting the outcome of thousands of pending cases for low-level drug offenses.
Wheat’s lawsuit contends that his own arrest “was made without probable cause and should have never occurred.”
He got caught in the crosshairs of police officers who work for a department that allows misconduct to go unpunished, his lawsuit charges.
As a result, his trial could have broader implications than merely deciding his innocence or guilt.
The traffic stop on that late November day in 2017 might have been set in motion months earlier.
A plan was hatched by ambitious police lieutenants and carried out by the newly minted Crime Prevention Unit.
A “points system” for patrol officers was implemented that “essentially created a performance quota,” according to a whistleblower lawsuit filed in March by Parsippany Police Sgt. Matthew LaManna. (It’s illegal in New Jersey for police departments to administer quotas for arrests or citations.)
It led to a spike in arrests by the Crime Prevention Unit, according to a source within the department. The source requested anonymity to speak candidly about internal police affairs.
”Their job was to go out there and find stuff,” the source said. “They were told to stop cars and make arrests.”
The stats caught the eye of police brass — and there was an attempt to implement the policy department-wide, the source said.
NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the memo that introduced the program in July 2017. It attached a point value to each police action. A motor vehicle stop, for example, was worth one point, while an arrest leading to a complaint-warrant earned an officer three points.
Officers had to earn between six and eight points a day depending on the shifts they worked, the memo states. It does not say, however, what would happen if officers did not meet the requirements.
“Sgt. LaManna believed that this system had essentially created a performance quota that incentivized and resulted in officers conducting questionable arrests and illegal searches and seizures,” the lawsuit said.
Elston and Seeger, the two who stopped Wheat, were part of the unit that has come under question.
In the lawsuit, LaManna details years of “breaches of policies and procedures” and “outright violations of the law” in the department.
LaManna, who remains on the force, referred any comment to his attorney, Andrew S. Berns. Berns said the lawsuit speaks for itself.
“The complaint really sets forth what our issues are with the town and how my client has been treated over the years,” he said.
Capt. John J. Wieners, whose name was on the memo introducing the “Patrol Officer Minimum Productivity” plan, told NJ Advance Media it was “rescinded very quickly,” but he declined to comment further.
Still, the program continued for more than two years within the Crime Prevention Unit, according to the source within the department. After the unit’s commander, Lt. Daniel Bendas, was transferred to the traffic division, it moved from the day shift to the night shift, where it continued under Lt. Ronald Carrozzino, the source said. The unit was eventually disbanded by May 2019, the source added.
Police Chief Andrew Miller, who took control of the department in 2018, declined to be interviewed through a spokesman. The spokesman, Sgt. Brian Conover, said the department is unable to comment on pending litigation.
The patrol officers donned hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps. Elston and Seeger hadn’t earned the rank of detective, but they looked the part.
On Nov. 29, 2017, they stopped Wheat on Route 46 west.
After Wheat conceded to not knowing the left lane is for passing only, Elston instructed him to exit the vehicle. Wheat appeared nervous, the officer noted in a police report. He was “shaking uncontrollably,” said a second police report.
But Wheat appeared calm in the dashboard camera video of the stop, at one point leaning with his elbow on the trunk as the officers ran his information. The following exchange comes from that video:
“You don’t have anything in the car you’re not supposed to have, right?” Elston asked.
“It’s 50-something degrees out, you got a jacket on and you’re still kind of shaking,” Elston continued. “Nothing in the car at all?”
Wheat responded, “I used to hang out with kind of interesting people that maybe would have things in the car.”
“Would you mind if I took a look?” Elston asked.
“You won’t find anything,” Wheat responded.
Elston said: “You can say no. It’s fine. I’m just asking.”
Wheat did not give consent for the search.
“Based on his nervousness and actions, the Morris County K-9 was contacted and asked to respond to our location,” a police report noted.
The K-9 canvassed the exterior of the vehicle and appeared to indicate there could be drugs in the trunk. As police searched the trunk, the dog entered the interior of the vehicle, but did not appear to find any narcotics, dashboard camera video shows.
Police searched the trunk for nearly 20 minutes, removing bag after bag, but came up empty.
As the search continued — with four officers assisting — Sgt. Steven Miller arrived. After observing the officers for several minutes, he walked to the passenger’s side of the vehicle and appeared on dashboard camera video to reach underneath the front passenger’s seat. He found one wax fold, police said. The search continued for another 25 minutes, but no additional drugs were found.
In all, the stop lasted an hour and 12 minutes.
Miller worked for the police department for more than 19 years before he retired in October. Prior to becoming an officer, he served in the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1991. The department source said he had a reputation for doing solid police work.
Miller denied to NJ Advance Media that he planted evidence. He said he’s precluded from talking about the stop because the court case is pending.
Wheat was placed in the back of Elston and Seeger’s police car and brought to police headquarters.
On the ride there, with the dashboard camera still rolling, Elston can be heard telling Seeger, “Are you going to sanitize my bag where the fold was? That was sweet.”
“He told me to put it there,” Seeger responded.
“You could have said, ‘Hey man, how about we don’t?” Elston said. “If he told you to jump off the GWB, would ya?”
It’s unclear what the exchange regarded. Elston and Seeger declined to comment through a department spokesman.
Wheat’s attorney, Erin Cirelli, also declined to comment.
It’s bold to accuse an officer of planting evidence, but it’s not unprecedented in New Jersey.
In 2010, three former Camden police officers admitted in federal court to planting evidence on innocent people. A fourth former cop, Antonio Figueroa, was convicted of the same charges after a three-week trial. He was sentenced in 2012 to 10 years in prison.
More recently, three Trenton cops were accused in a lawsuit of planting a gun on a man they arrested in August 2018.
It’s critical to the public’s trust that complaints of police misconduct aren’t taken lightly and are investigated thoroughly, said Marque Heydari, the deputy director at John Jay College.
“The prosecutions of these cases is critical to restore faith in our criminal justice system,” she said. “There’s an enormous need for it.”
Bob Bianchi, a legal analyst who served as the Morris County prosecutor from 2007 to 2013, said probable cause when dealing with searches of vehicles is complex and nuanced.
But exhibiting signs of nervousness, in and of itself, does not give the officer the right to search a vehicle.
“There needs to be probable cause of criminality,” Bianchi said. “That’s probable cause of being nervous by being pulled over by the police, an experience that everyone, including law-abiding people, feel when that occurs.”
However, drivers have less of a right to privacy when it comes to searches of the exterior of the vehicle, Bianchi noted.
“Courts give police officers a greater latitude in not getting warrants in motor vehicle cases,” he said.
There were seven citizen complaints of improper arrest in 2019, of which three cases were exonerated by internal affairs investigations, according to statistics provided by the Parsippany Police Department. There were no reports of improper searches or improper entry.
NJ Advance Media has identified two drug cases from the Crime Prevention Unit in 2019 that started with questionable stops. In one case, an air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror and a border around the license plate were cited as the reasons for the stop. In another, a vehicle was flagged for occupying two spaces in a parking lot. Both cases resulted in the seizure of a significant amount of drugs.
One defendant’s case is still pending, while the other defendant received pre-trial intervention, which resulted in no jail time and a period of probation.
“There may have been some search and seizure issues,” said Percy D. Gayanilo, the attorney for the man whose case was resolved. “That’s why it led to where it led. He had New York plates and drove into a nice, little town at night and that was it.”
David Wheat didn’t have out-of-state plates. But his car was registered to the Rachel Gardens apartment complex in Montville, which is known to have drug activity.
Wheat, whose flat-brimmed hat hardly covered his long hair, was a pawn in a department ripe with malfeasance, his lawsuit charges.
“(It) has created an atmosphere where officers believe they can operate with impunity,” the lawsuit said.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.