In an effort to combat the incidence of auto theft in New Jersey, the attorney general's office, in conjunction with the state police, initiated a sting operation in which stolen vehicles and parts were bought and later sold to third parties. As a result of this investigative operation, Nicholas Pontelandolfo and John Landolfi were indicted by a state grand jury for: receiving stolen property in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7, possessing, for an unlawful purpose, vehicles or parts with altered or destroyed identification numbers, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:17-6(b) and, as to defendant, Landolfi, forgery in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:21-1(a). While brought together by the same police operation, each defendant's charges are unrelated to the other. By joint motion, defendants now appear before the court challenging the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 2C:17-6(b) as applied to them.
Procedurally, defendants stand on different footings. Defendant, Pontelandolfo, was tried before a jury. After prolonged deliberations, the jury was unable to agree upon a verdict and pursuant to R. 3:20-1, a new trial was ordered. John Landolfi was also tried before a jury. During the pendency of the trial, the court, on motion by defendant, dismissed count four, a possession charge, in accordance with R. 3:18-1. Subsequently, the jury returned a verdict of guilty as to all counts except count five, for which defendant was acquitted.
Defendants now move, pursuant to R. 3:10-3 to dismiss those counts of their respective indictments alleging a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:17-6(b). While defendants filed separate motions, they were joined for disposition since the legal issue presented was identical. Defendants relied upon a single brief filed by defendant, Pontelandolfo, and each defendant relied upon the same testimony of Detective Charles Cooper, a state's witness in both trials, in support of their position.
The statute in question, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-6(b) reads in pertinent part:
b. A person who for an unlawful purpose knowingly possesses any motor vehicle, or any of the parts thereof, from or on which any trademark, distinguishing or identification number, or serial number or mark has been removed, covered, altered, changed, defaced, destroyed or obliterated, is guilty of an offense, unless, within 10 days after the motor vehicle or any part thereof shall have come into his possession, he files with the Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles in the Department of Law and Public Safety a verified statement showing: the source of his title, the proper trademark, identification or distinguishing number, or serial number or mark, if known, and if known, the manner of and reason for the mutilation, change, alteration, concealment or defacement, the length of time the motor vehicle or part has been held and the price paid therefor.
Defendants contend that the reporting requirement embodied in the statute violates their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. They allege that, by reporting the destroyed or altered identification number, they will have created a link to other crimes for which defendants could, and, in fact, were, eventually charged.
Evidentially, Detective Charles Cooper, a member of the New Jersey State Police assigned to investigate auto thefts, testified that a person possessing a vehicle or parts with altered or destroyed identification numbers, must file with the Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles, a verified statement as prescribed by the statute. In addition, the vehicle or parts must be brought to the state police station at Totowa or Hammonton and the correct number ascertained.
If it is determined that the parts are stolen, then they are seized by the state police and they are returned to their original owner. The disposition of the person presenting the vehicle or parts is not entirely clear. The following interchange during cross-examination of Detective Cooper in the Landolfi trial is instructive.
Q. I believe you told us that if it later turned up things were stolen, Mr. Landolfi would have been charged with receiving stolen goods?
A. I don't believe I said that. But that's a possibility, yes, sir.
Q. Who would make the decision whether or not liability attached, criminal liability?
A. Well, are you asking if I was conducting the investigation?
Q. No, I'm asking -- well, let's say you were.
A. Okay. After I completed the investigation in its entirety, depending on how the facts developed, if the need was necessary, the facts of the case would be discussed with a prosecutor. And at that point there I ...