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State v. Reldan

Decided: July 24, 1985.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Schreiber, Handler, Pollock and Garibaldi. For reversal -- Justices Clifford and O'Hern. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. O'Hern, J., dissenting.


[100 NJ Page 190] Defendant, Robert Reldan, charged with two counts of murder, appeals from the holding of the Appellate Division, which reversed the trial court's decision to suppress certain forensic evidence seized from defendant's automobile. The evidence, which was allegedly probative of defendant's guilt of the homicides, was discovered during a search that was executed pursuant to a valid warrant authorizing a search for evidence of unrelated robberies.

The defendant claims that the search exceeded the scope of the warrant and was unreasonable on several grounds. A vacuum was used to obtain human hair and other minute particles from the floor of the car. These items were subsequently examined microscopically to produce the forensic evidence linking defendant to the homicides. Moreover, the Bergen County detectives who executed the search warrant were assisted by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who were ostensibly interested only in investigating defendant's possible role in the two homicides. The defendant also claims that a suppression order, granted pursuant to defendant's motion prior to an earlier trial on the same charges, controls the issue of admissibility.

In the earlier proceedings following his indictment on two counts of murder, defendant had moved to suppress the evidence seized in the automobile search. This motion to suppress was heard and decided in May 1979. The court issued an opinion and order granting the motion to suppress, which the State did not attempt to appeal at that time. The ensuing trial lasted from May 21 through June 16, 1979, when it ended in the declaration of a mistrial because the jury was unable to agree on a verdict. A second trial, which lasted from September 19 through October 17, 1979, resulted in convictions for first-degree and second-degree murder, but the judgments were reversed by the Appellate Division in May 1982 and the matter remanded for yet a third trial. State v. Reldan, 185 N.J. Super. 494 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 91 N.J. 543 (1982).

In anticipation of the third trial, the State moved before the trial court for a reconsideration of the May 1979 suppression order. The motion was heard in October 1983. The court determined that a new hearing on the suppression issue was warranted and, following that hearing, concluded that the evidence from the search would have to be suppressed because "the execution of the warrant went beyond its scope" and there were no exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the search was

objectively reasonable. This Court granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal. 97 N.J. 618 (1984).


The facts of record indicate that two New Jersey women disappeared in October of 1975. S.H. of Haworth, New Jersey was last seen alive at her home on October 6 at approximately 3:30 p.m. S.R. of Demarest, New Jersey was last seen alive on October 14 at approximately 6:10 p.m. by a bus driver who dropped her at the intersection of County Road and Anderson Avenue in Demarest and by a fellow passenger on that bus.

S.H.'s body was found in a wooded area of Valley Cottage, Rockland County, New York, on October 27, 1975. S.R.'s body was found in Tallman State Park, about thirteen miles from where S.H.'s body was found, on October 28, 1975. Autopsies revealed that the cause of death in both cases was strangulation by ligature resulting in a fracture of the hyoid bone. Pantyhose had been used to strangle both women.

The ensuing investigation of the murders by the Bergen County Prosecutor's office resulted in a list of sex offenders who had recently been released on parole. Robert Reldan's name was among the names on that list. On October 17 an investigator interviewed Eileen Dalton, a toll collector employed by the Port Authority. The interview revealed that on October 14, the evening of S.R.'s disappearance, Ms. Dalton was at the Plaza of the Palisades Interstate Parkway collecting tolls from passengers headed southbound toward the bridge to New York. Ms. Dalton told police that at approximately 7:00 or 7:30 that night she received a toll from a twenty-five to thirty-year-old white male about 5'8" or 5'9" in height with dark brown hair just below the ears, and that as his car pulled away from the toll booth she heard a female voice scream, "Help me. Please help me. He's a maniac." FBI agents showed Miss Dalton a spread of six photographs, including one of Robert Reldan, and

she identified a photograph of Robert Reldan as looking like the man who was driving the car in question.

On October 21, the police spoke with Reldan on the telephone to arrange an interview with him. The next day, Reldan voluntarily appeared at the prosecutor's office. He was asked about his whereabouts during the approximate time that the two women had disappeared. Reldan made some statements that aroused the suspicions of the police officers. First, he placed himself at or near the intersection at which S.R. was last seen alive at about the time of her disappearance. Second, he made what the investigator considered a "Freudian slip" when he said to the police, "I hope no more girls get killed," at a time when the two women were still considered missing and not dead. The defendant also made some statements about his whereabouts at relevant periods that were partially or totally contradicted by other witnesses whom the police interviewed later.

On October 30, an investigator assisting in the homicide investigations interviewed the Director of the Department of Corrections Sex Offender Unit and defendant's therapist. Both stated that Reldan was capable of committing a rape-murder, and that if he did so, he would "act in such a manner as to lead the authorities to him."

Also on October 30, at about 2:00 p.m., Mr. Muino, a homeowner in Norwood, New Jersey, observed a man fitting Reldan's description trying to enter his home. The intruder fled the scene in a red Opal Kadette station wagon with a damaged left fender and a black metal drum in the rear. The home had been burglarized of several items of jewelry and other valuables earlier that month, on October 3.

On October 31, at about 10:30 a.m., Mr. Leeds of Closter, New Jersey observed a white male, whom he later identified from a photograph of Reldan, rummaging in his wife's pocketbook in the kitchen of his home. The Closter detective who responded to the call observed a 1969 red Opal Kadette station

wagon with a damaged front fender and a black metal drum in the rear parked down the street from the burglarized home. A license plate check revealed that the car was registered to a construction company owned and operated by Reldan.

Defendant was arrested in Englewood on October 31. His car at that time was still in Closter. The police impounded the car and towed it into the Closter police garage. Later that day, Bergen County police applied for a warrant to search the car for evidence of the break and entries.

In the application, they requested permission to search the defendant's red Opal Kadette for "the proceeds of the break and entry of the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Muino on October 3rd" and for "articles of evidentiary value in the investigation of the attempted break and entry of the Muino residence on October 30th." The application also sought permission to investigate the car for evidence of "the break and entry of the Leeds residence on October 31st including, but not limited to, fingerprints, implements used to commit the break and entries, stolen property listed on the attached sheet and anything else of evidentiary value that a complete and thorough search might disclose." The "attached sheet" listed numerous items of jewelry and other personal property.

A warrant authorizing the police to search the car for evidence and proceeds of the break and entries and possible robberies was issued shortly thereafter. The automobile search was executed on November 1, 1975 by Bergen County law enforcement officials assisted by FBI agents. During the search, officials vacuumed the interior of the car and retrieved samples of human hair from the right front floor mat, the rear seat, and underneath the rear seat. The hairs were later taken to an FBI laboratory and examined microscopically. Besides the hair, other items were seized in the search and were itemized in a three-page inventory. Reldan's arrest and indictment for the two murders followed the search and seizure.


Defendant does not dispute the legality of the warrant to search his car. The defendant contends that the seizure of materials by vacuuming the automobile, the subsequent microscopic examination of this material, and the execution of the search warrant with the assistance of the FBI exceeded the scope of the search warrant and were unrelated to the robberies. We deal initially with the grounds relating to whether the vacuuming of the car and the subsequent microscopic examination of the materials obtained exceeded the scope of the warrant or were otherwise unreasonable.

Defendant contends that the vacuum sweep of the car's interior was itself unreasonable. It is well settled that officers searching a person's home, car or belongings under authority of a search warrant are authorized to use only those investigatory methods, and to search only those places, appropriate in light of the scope of the warrant. Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145, 152, 67 S. Ct. 1098, 1102, 91 L. Ed. 1399, 1407 (1947). An analysis of the reasonableness of the methods used in a search, as well as the areas searched, should focus upon whether the search in its totality was consistent with the object of the search. Id. "A warrant to search a vehicle would support a search of every part of the vehicle that might contain the object of the search. When a legitimate search is under way, and when its purpose and its limits have been precisely defined, nice distinctions between * * * glove compartments, upholstered seats, trunks, and wrapped packages, in the case of a vehicle, must give way to the interest in the prompt and efficient completion of the task at hand." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 821-22, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 2170-71, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572, 591 (1982).*fn1 [100 NJ Page 196] Here, the warrant authorized the search for numerous items of personal property, as well as evidence relating to the alleged crimes. Presumably none of the items of stolen property was so minuscule as to require a vacuum to retrieve it. On the other hand, as the State points out, the vacuum could have been effective in retrieving small particles of jewelry that may have broken off -- for example, backs of earrings, clasps of necklaces, and small gems. In addition, the vacuum could appropriately have been used to uncover other evidence of the break and entries, such as soil particles, debris, paint chips and the like. The application for the search warrant recited adequate facts to demonstrate probable cause and specifically requested judicial authorization to search defendant's automobile for criminal evidence relating to the "break and entry * * * including but not limited to, fingerprints, implements used to commit the break and entries, * * * and anything else of evidentiary value that a complete and thorough search might disclose." (Emphasis added.) Consequently, it does not appear that a search consisting of the retrieval by the use of a vacuum of debris from the floor of an automobile in connection with the execution of a search warrant directed to evidence of household burglaries exceeded the scope of the warrant either as to the areas searched or items sought.*fn2

We are not persuaded that the search in terms of the vacuuming of the car was otherwise unreasonable. In the context of the "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement, we have recognized the diminished expectation of privacy that attends car ownership and use. See State v. Esteves, 93 N.J. 498, 504 (1983); State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 9 (1980). This circumstance greatly colors the reasonableness of a search of a car. Although the exception is often seen as the result of a ready mobility of cars, "less vigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office." South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367, 96 S. Ct. 3092, 3096, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1000, 1004 (1976). Recently, in California v. Carney, 471 U.S. , , , 105 S. Ct. 2066, 2069, 2070, 85 L. Ed. 2d 406, 413, 414 (1985), the Supreme Court explained that expectations of privacy are diminished primarily because of "the pervasive regulation of vehicles, capable of traveling on the public highway" and that "[t]he public is fully aware that it is accorded less privacy in its automobiles because of this compelling governmental need for regulation."

The diminished expectation of privacy also explains why warrantless searches of automobiles are allowed when an automobile is in the exclusive control of the authorities, even though no exigent circumstances exist. State v. Martin, 87 N.J. 561, 568 (1981), relying on Texas v. White, 423 U.S. 67, 68, 96 S. Ct. 304, 305, 46 L. Ed. 2d 209, 211 (1975); Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 593-94, 94 S. Ct. ...

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