On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Union County.
Michels, Shebell and Gaynor. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gaynor, J.A.D.
[223 NJSuper Page 63] By leave granted, the State appeals from the suppression of statements made by defendant to an investigator of the Union County Prosecutor's Arson Unit who was investigating fire damage to three motor vehicles while parked in the lot of a garden apartment complex. It is contended the trial court erred in concluding that defendant's statements were excludable
because of the officer's failure to have given defendant Miranda*fn1 warnings prior to questioning. We agree and reverse.
On September 30, 1986, at approximately 12:25 a.m., Investigator William Moylan responded to the scene of a fire involving three automobiles. After speaking to the police and fire personnel already on the scene, Moylan spoke to James Sutton, the owner of the most severely damaged car. Sutton stated he believed the incident to have been drug related and part of a problem he was having with an ex-girl friend and a male individual "that he only knew by the first name of 'Nelson'." He also related that three days before the fire he had observed Nelson driving by his apartment very slowly on a motorcycle and shortly thereafter a white-colored automobile stopped in front of his apartment for a few moments while the occupants appeared to be "looking at the apartments, looking at the vehicles."
The police and fire personnel having left, Moylan also proceeded to leave. However, he remained when Sutton alerted him to the fact that this same white-colored vehicle had just entered the parking lot. The driver was observed leaving the vehicle, walking into the apartment complex and, after a few moments, returning to the car. Moylan had then positioned his vehicle so as to block the path of the white car. He identified himself as a police officer and requested identification from the driver, the defendant. After telling defendant to wait in the car, Moylan returned to his vehicle to write up the information from defendant's driver's license. He also called for a back-up unit from the local police department. Defendant then approached Moylan asking him "what was going on," and was told by Moylan that he "was conducting an investigation, that we had a fire in the complex."
Upon being asked why he was in the area, defendant explained that he had driven to the complex to visit his girl friend
but that she was not at home. In response to Moylan's questioning defendant told him the name of his girl friend and the location of her apartment. After telling defendant that he would have to wait a few more minutes while his story was checked out, Moylan went to the apartment designated by defendant and discovered that the named girl friend did not live there. In the meanwhile, the back-up unit had arrived. Upon being confronted with the result of Moylan's inquiries, defendant was asked for an explanation and then given the opportunity to accompany the investigator and point out the door leading to the apartment that he claimed his girl friend occupied. Prior to accompanying the officer to the apartment defendant was patted down as a precautionary measure but no weapons were found on him. When defendant and Moylan proceeded to the apartments, defendant pointed out the same apartment that Moylan had previously checked.
Upon returning to the parking lot, Moylan asked defendant if he had ever been arrested. Defendant responded that previously he had been arrested for burglary. During this conversation, one of the back-up officers was shining his flashlight into the interior of defendant's vehicle. When this was observed by defendant, he told the police they could search his car as he had "nothing to hide." Defendant opened the trunk and an examination of its contents disclosed no contraband. He was then told that it might be necessary for him to come to the prosecutor's office at a later date to be interviewed. As he prepared to leave and in response to a question from Moylan, defendant acknowledged that he owned a Suzuki motorcycle. Moylan then moved his vehicle, permitting defendant to drive away.
Defendant had been detained for approximately 30 minutes. Moylan indicated that defendant had not been under arrest as he didn't believe that at the time probable cause existed to make such an arrest. He explained that his sole purpose in detaining defendant was that, "I had a duty and obligation to at least obtain names, addresses and what the individual was at the scene for."
In granting defendant's motion to suppress the statements made by defendant to Investigator Moylan at the ...