On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
King, Dreier and Gruccio. King, P.J.A.D.
This is an appeal on leave, R. 2:2-3(b), to the State from the grant of a motion to suppress in a narcotics case. The case is close and rather unusual in context. We reverse the ruling on the suppression motion and remand for trial.
The case arose from a month-long FBI drug-courier profile surveillance of the two defendants. The defendants were the subjects of an extended investigation in which they were identified by the State Police as likely drug couriers because of their characteristic conduct. They were from Miami, Florida; travelled only by taxi; moved frequently from one hotel or motel to another, or from one room to another; paid for their rooms in cash; declined maid service in their rooms and used public telephones instead of their room telephones. One man operated as a "lookout." They frequently carried packages in and out of their rooms, staying for only a short period of time. The surveillance apparently had not yielded enough evidence to support an application for a search warrant, the State Police's ultimate objective.
On February 1, 1991 at 6 a.m. Trooper Cartagena was briefed by Sergeant Linden concerning the prior month-long surveillance and was given general descriptions of the defendants, Abreu and Sanchez. At about 10:30 a.m. on that day, Trooper Cartagena was notified that the two suspects were leaving the Colonial Motor Lodge in Cherry Hill. He was told that they had entered a cab which was driving westward on Route 38 toward Camden. This uniformed Trooper was directed to follow defendants in a marked State Police cruiser and, if a reason so occurred, to stop the vehicle and attempt to establish the identity of the occupants. He was not instructed to search the cab or its occupants.
The Trooper followed the cab west on Route 38 to the Browning Road exit. The cab driver failed to stop at the stop sign at the intersection of Route 38 and Browning Road. The Trooper then stopped the cab for this violation.
The Trooper approached the cab on the driver's side and requested the driver's credentials. He complied. The Trooper then recognized the two passengers as fitting the general descriptions of the surveillance subjects which he had received earlier from Sergeant Linden. The Trooper then questioned the passengers about their destination and their "belongings." He got conflicting answers from the two on each subject. He requested their identification documents which they willingly produced, identifying themselves as Luis Abreu and Charles Sanchez.
The Trooper saw that there was a large blue gym bag and a brown Jordache bag between Abreu and Sanchez on the rear seat. He said the defendants were "nervous" and uneasy. Trooper Cartagena had asked them who owned the bags and Sanchez said that both bags belonged to Abreu. Speaking in Spanish, Abreu said that he owned the blue bag. Abreu denied owning the brown Jordache bag and said that it belonged to Sanchez. The conflicting accounts of ownership of the brown bag naturally aroused the Trooper's suspicions. No one claimed that the bags had any name tags or labels on them. The Trooper asked them to get out of the cab and they complied.
Abreu, on the Trooper's request, then signed a Spanish-language standard consent-to-search form for the blue bag, in which he acknowledged that he knew of his right to refuse consent. See State v. Johnson, 68 N.J. 349, 354, 346 A.2d 66 (1975). A search of the blue bag revealed no contraband. Trooper Cartagena, who was born in Puerto Rico and was fluent in Spanish, spoke to Abreu in Spanish at all times. He obtained the consent-to-search in Spanish. Sanchez refused to sign any consent-to-search form.
The Trooper then asked the cab driver if the brown bag belonged to him. The cab driver denied ownership. The cab driver said that each defendant had entered the cab carrying a bag. He was ...