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State v. Gonzalez

Decided: December 6, 1977.


For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford and Schreiber and Judge Conford. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pashman, J. Conford, P.J.A.D., Temporarily Assigned, concurring. Justice Mountain and Justice Clifford join in this opinion. Mountain and Clifford, JJ., and Conford, P.J.A.D., concurring in the result.


At approximately 1:30 A.M. on November 13, 1973, defendants Edgardo Gonzalez and Candelario Sanchez were stopped on Interstate Highway 80 by two State Troopers for a speeding violation. While one officer questioned defendant, his partner illuminated the interior of the car with his flashlight. He saw what he believed to be a partially smoked marijuana cigarette on the rear floor of the car. A complete search of the vehicle followed, turning up a loaded pistol concealed under a floor mat. The officers also searched both men and found a white powdery substance on Gonzalez that was later identified as cocaine.

Sanchez and Gonzalez were subsequently named as defendants in an indictment charging them with unlawful possession of an automatic pistol, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:151-41 (a). Gonzalez was charged in an additional indictment alleging unlawful possession of a controlled dangerous substance, in violation of N.J.S.A. 24:21-30.

As a result of his arrest and indictment in New Jersey, defendant was returned to prison in New York for a breach of the conditions of his parole. Although he waived extradition proceedings, New Jersey authorities did not secure his temporary custody to stand trial until April 30, 1974. In the interim, his codefendant Sanchez, had brought a motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the aforesaid warrantless search of the automobile. Sanchez contended that the trooper had no reasonable basis for believing that the cigarette butt on the floor of the car contained marijuana. Thus he allegedly lacked probable cause to conduct both the search of the car and the subsequent search of the two men. The only witness to testify at the suppression hearing was the arresting officer. The court granted the motion, ruling that the trooper's ability to identify the substance as marijuana had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The State elected not to seek leave to appeal

this decision, R. 2:5-6(a), and the Sanchez indictment was later dismissed on its motion.

Upon his return to this State for trial, Gonzalez made a similar motion to suppress which was heard by a different judge. In addition to the ground successfully urged by Sanchez, defendant argued that the State was precluded from relitigating the question of probable cause under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The court rejected the latter argument on the ground that Gonzalez had not been a party to the first proceeding. It also noted that defendant, unlike Sanchez, had been charged with an additional count of unlawful possession of cocaine. As in the first motion, the State relied solely on the same trooper's version of the incident. However, this time the court found that probable cause had been established beyond a reasonable doubt and denied the motion.

Defendant was tried before a jury which returned verdicts of guilty on both counts. He received consecutive sentences of three to five years for possession of the pistol and one to two years for possession of the cocaine.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the conviction on the pistol charge because of improper comments by the prosecutor at trial but affirmed the conviction on the cocaine charge.*fn1 It found that the disparate results of the suppression motions were "of no consequence," erroneously noting that "apparently it was defendant's failure to appear at [the Sanchez] hearing that occasioned its being held without him."*fn2 We granted defendant's petition for certification, 69 N.J. 443 (1976), limiting our consideration to the effect of the inconsistent rulings

on the separate motions to suppress. We conclude that the doctrine of collateral estoppel should have been applied in these circumstances to suppress the fruits of the search of defendant's person. Accordingly, we reverse.

The Issue

As presented by the defendant, the question before us is a narrow one: whether a grant of one indictee's motion to suppress evidence as illegally seized should preclude the State from relitigating the validity of the search as to a coindictee who was unable to participate in the earlier proceeding. As he points out, the issue is further narrowed by the fact that the State could have obtained judicial review of the adverse determination on Sanchez' motion to suppress. See R. 2:5-6(a). Although acknowledging the traditional rule confining collateral estoppel to prior determinations involving the same parties, defendant contends that recent case law in civil litigation has largely abandoned this rule. He suggests that the present case is an appropriate instance to extend these principles to criminal law. The State, on the other hand, contends that criminal proceedings are inherently different from civil litigation, and opposes any such change. However, it recognizes the undesirability of inconsistent findings by different judges and proposes a rule of court requiring joinder in a single hearing, whenever feasible, of all suppression motions brought by co-indictees involved in the same search.


Collateral estoppel is that branch of the broader law of res judicata which bars relitigation of any issue which was actually determined in a prior action, generally between the same parties, involving a different claim or cause of action. Mazzilli v. Accident and Casualty Ins. Co., etc., 26 N.J. 307, 313-314 (1958); Kelley v. Curtiss, 16 N.J. 265, 273 (1954); Miraglia v. Miraglia, 106 N.J. Super. 266, 271

(App. Div. 1969). See also Cromwell v. Sac County, 94 U.S. 351, 24 L. Ed. 195 (1876); Scott, Collateral Estoppel by Judgment, 56 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (1942); Developments in the Law -- Res Judicata, 65 Harv. L. Rev. 818 (1952). Ordinarily the scope of the rule is confined to questions of fact or mixed questions of law and fact, see United States v. Moser, 266 U.S. 236, 241-242, 45 S. Ct. 66, 67, 69 L. Ed. 262, 264 (1924); Restatement, Judgments, § 68 at 293 (1942). However, its applicability also extends to questions of law where the claims arise from the same transaction, or "if injustice would result." See Washington Tp. v. Gould, 39 N.J. 527 (1963); cf. Restatement, Judgments 2d §§ 68, 68.1(b) at 27 (Tent. Draft No. 4, 1977) and Comment at § 68.1 at 29-31 (which indicates that a prior determination of an issue of law cannot be challenged unless the two actions involve substantially unrelated claims).

The issue of the validity of the search was a mixed question of law and fact which was common to both the Sanchez and the Gonzalez hearings.*fn3 At both hearings the critical issue for determination was the trooper's sensory capacity to detect the particular details of the cigarette butt and his ability to identify those details as characteristic of a marijuana cigarette. If what was perceived as a marijuana butt was in plain view, the search of the car to recover contraband and of the defendant as incidental to his arrest was lawful. Both judges placed the burden on the State to sustain the search beyond a reasonable doubt,*fn4 but on the same facts they reached results which were directly opposite. Had both parties brought their motions simultaneously, no such

inconsistency would have developed. The State would have been precluded from relitigating the legality of the search under both ordinary collateral estoppel principles and under the constitutional prohibition set forth in the double jeopardy clause. Cf. Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 90 S. Ct. 1189, 25 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1970). But no constitutional command is implicated here since the defendant had not been placed in jeopardy in the Sanchez hearing. Thus, we must determine whether to adopt the same practice which is sometimes followed in civil litigation when a prior determination of an issue of fact is asserted as an estoppel against a party by one who was not himself a party to the previous action.

Early decisions treated identity of parties (or their privies) as a strict prerequisite to giving conclusive effect to a prior judicial determination of a matter. As ...

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