For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.
The defendant was convicted by a jury of receiving stolen goods under two indictments consolidated for trial. After she had been sentenced to a seven-year maximum term under each indictment, to be served consecutively (but concurrent with a sentence being served on another offense), the conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division in an unreported opinion. The present case is before this Court on direct appeal pursuant to R.R. 1:2-1(a), "involving a question arising under the Constitution of the United States or this State." Since counsel had expressed some hesitancy with regard to the effect of this rule on the non-constitutional claims raised by defendant, we would like it to be clearly understood that so long as there is a proper basis for an appeal as of right, as here, we will consider all points raised in the case. Kligman v. Lautman, 53 N.J. 517, at pp. 522, 523 (1969); see State v. Boyd, 44 N.J. 390 (1965).
The facts proved by the State both at trial and on a motion to suppress the admission of the evidence, are as follows: In early December, 1966, a number of blank checks were stolen from a restaurant and from a gas station in the Newark area. These checks were later seized by the police following a search of the car which the defendant was driving at the time she was apprehended on December 29, 1966. The defendant had escaped from the Reformatory for Women at Clinton where she was serving a sentence for felony-murder. On the night of her arrest, the police had staked out a corner in Newark where she was expected to pass by in an automobile. The police had a warrant for her arrest; they also had information that she was carrying a gun. At about 10 p.m., a car being driven by the defendant and carrying three male passengers approached the intersection. The police stopped the car, ordered everyone out, searched and handcuffed the defendant, and made a cursory search of the car at the scene. Since a crowd was forming and the police feared a possible incident in the neighborhood, they proceeded
to transport the car and its passengers to the street behind the county courthouse, a few blocks away, where a more thorough search of the car was made.
The defendant had been searched at the time of her arrest, and a knife was found in her pocket. She did not have any of the stolen checks on her person. During the cursory search of the car at the time of arrest, the police saw checks on the floor of the car and one of the officers asked the handcuffed defendant, "Whose stuff is this?" The defendant answered that the checks were hers. She had not been given the warnings set forth in Miranda v. State of Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2 d 694 (1966). As a result of the more thorough search behind the courthouse, made in the defendant's presence, a revolver was found under the front seat of the car and more checks were found in the glove compartment.
The defendant testified that there were no checks in the car as far as she had known, but that after the arrest the checks in evidence had been taken from one of the passengers in the car. She said that she first saw the checks about an hour after she had been taken to the sheriff's office, and that she had admitted that the checks were hers because she felt she was to blame for the arrest of the others, believing that if she took responsibility for the checks they would not be prosecuted.
On this appeal, the defendant contends that because she had not been given the Miranda warnings prior to the officer's question, "Whose stuff is this?", her response that the checks were hers was wrongly admitted at trial in violation of her fifth amendment privileges. We interpret the rule in Miranda to require the four-fold warnings*fn* whenever
a suspect is taken into custody and is "subjected to questioning." Miranda, supra, 384 U.S., at 478, 86 S. Ct., at 1630, 16 L. Ed. 2 d, at 726. There is no doubt that the defendant had not been given the warnings and was in police custody at the time the single question was asked by the officer. The question remains, however, was she "subjected to questioning" within the meaning of Miranda, so as to invalidate her admission? We think not. What was comprehended by Miranda was a process of "custodial interrogation" which the Supreme Court found to be inherently coercive. The single question asked in this case was not part of the investigation which led to the defendant's apprehension, nor was it one of a series of investigatory queries. Most important, it was not the type of question which centered blameworthiness on the defendant. She could have attributed possession to anyone, or no one, in answer to the question directed to her. After all, there were three other occupants in the car. We do not hold, however, that any single question directed to a suspect is automatically beyond the scope of Miranda. As mentioned above, were the officer to have asked the defendant the kind of question which called for an admission of guilt, we might draw a different conclusion. But here the question was open-ended in its form, not focusing on any particular suspect, and unrelated to the cause of her arrest as an escapee.
There is no suggestion that prior to the defendant's arrest the police had any inkling that the defendant was connected with stolen checks, or that any checks had been stolen. The officer's question did not relate to any past conduct of the defendant, but was concerned only with objects then and there visible to those present. The defendant was not quizzed as to how or where the checks were obtained. It seems clear to us that the essence of the situation was not an officer imposing a process of interrogation upon a suspect, but an officer reacting naturally and spontaneously to the scene before him. See Allen v. United States, 390 F.2d 476, 479 (D.C. Cir. 1968). In the circumstances of this case, we cannot believe that the officer's single inquiry was the kind of
custodial interrogation which the Supreme Court in Miranda held to be barred in the absence of prior warnings. All four defendants in that case were subjected to prolonged detention and interrogation, ranging from several hours to five days, all of which focused upon past criminal events of which each was a ...