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State v. Valentine

Decided: March 18, 1993.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Long, D'Annunzio and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'Annunzio, J.A.D. Keefe, J.A.D., Dissenting.


This appeal is from judgments of conviction under Monmouth County Indictments No. 90-08-1321 and No. 90-12-1960. After denial of his suppression motions, defendant pleaded guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to count four of No. 90-12-1960, possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school with intent to distribute it (N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1); N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7), and to count one of No. 90-08-1321, possession of a knife by a person previously convicted of a crime (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7). Defendant was sentenced to an aggregate term of five years imprisonment with two years of parole ineligibility. Defendant's sole contention is that the trial court erred in denying his motions to suppress evidence.

We first address the cocaine charge. Detective Coutu, a law enforcement officer with substantial experience in drug enforcement, testified that on September 20, 1990, he was engaged in surveillance of the intersection of West Bergen and Layton Avenues in Red Bank, New Jersey. According to Coutu the area had been targeted for surveillance because it had been "identified as a high traffic area for narcotics distributors and buyers in that area." With the aid of binoculars, Coutu observed defendant standing on the southwest corner in the company of a female. A pickup truck made a left turn onto Layton Avenue and stopped at the corner where defendant was standing. The driver of the truck rolled down his window and conversed with defendant. After the conversation, defendant walked to the rear of the truck and Coutu "observed him just physically surveilling the area, looking back and forth." Defendant then walked to the front of the truck and entered it.

The vehicle drove south on Layton for fifty feet, made a u-turn and returned to the intersection, where defendant emerged from the vehicle with currency in his hand. Defendant secreted the currency in his left sock. Based on his experience, Coutu concluded that defendant, who was well known to him and other members of the Red Bank police department, had just engaged in a drug transaction.

As a result of Coutu's observations, other officers approached and searched defendant. They found the currency and drugs.

The trial court found that Coutu's observations and experience justified Coutu's Conclusion that he had just witnessed a drug transaction and, therefore, that the police had probable cause to search defendant.

We are satisfied that Coutu's observations and his training and experience justified his Conclusion that defendant had engaged in a drug transaction and, at the very least, that evidence of the transaction, i.e., the currency, was on defendant's person. See State v. Waltz, 61 N.J. 83, 87, 293 A.2d 167 (1972) (probable cause equivalent to a "well grounded suspicion" that a crime has been committed); State v. Pierce, 190 N.J. Super. 408, 415, 463 A.2d 977 (App.Div.1983) (police officer's training and experience may convert a "hunch" into probable cause). In United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418, 101 S. Ct. 690, 695, 66 L. Ed. 2d 621, 629 (1981), the Supreme Court articulated a description of the process of assessing the existence of probable cause which is particularly applicable in this case:

The process does not deal with hard certainties, but with probabilities. Long before the law of probabilities was articulated as such, practical people formulated certain common-sense Conclusions about human behavior; jurors as factfinders are permitted to do the same -- and so are law enforcement officers. Finally, the evidence thus collected must be seen and weighed not in terms of library analysis by scholars, but as understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement.

Coutu's observation supported his "common-sense Conclusions" as a law enforcement officer that defendant probably had exchanged drugs for currency while he was in the truck.

A warrant was not necessary to search defendant because of the exigency inherent in defendant's mobility.

We affirm the judgment of conviction under Indictment No. 90-12-1960.

The conviction of possession of a knife, however, is based on a stop and frisk of defendant by Officer Nuccio on June 22, 1990. On that date, Officer Nuccio was on patrol alone shortly after

midnight when he observed a woman standing in the middle of the street.*fn1 Stopping his vehicle, Nuccio observed defendant "duck behind [a] tree." Nuccio emerged from his vehicle and approached defendant who was then "walking from behind the tree, walking out towards me with his hands in his pocket." As Nuccio and defendant closed the ...

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