On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
Michels, Bilder and Baime. The opinion of the court was delivered by Bilder, J.A.D.
This is an appeal by the State from an order of the Law Division suppressing approximately 325 grams of cocaine seized in connection with a motor vehicle stop on the Garden State Parkway. The sole issue is whether the facts as they appeared to the State Trooper provided an objectively reasonable basis for an examination of the front seat of the car which disclosed the plain sight presence of the cocaine -- i.e., whether the officer had a right to enter the car to examine an area toward which he had seen the front seat passenger lean or move earlier in the stop. Following a suppression hearing, the trial Judge concluded that the totality of the circumstances did not give rise to an objectively reasonable articulable reason to look into the front seat. We disagree.
The background factors as to the stop are relatively simple and apparently uncontested. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. on September 4, 1991, while conducting a traffic check at the Garden State Parkway's Shadowbrook toll plaza, Trooper Albert Rivera observed a four-door 1987 Audi without a front license plate or inspection sticker. When a view of its rear disclosed a New Jersey plate, Trooper Rivera pulled the car over. The trial Judge properly found that the stop for the motor vehicle violations was lawful.
When signalled, the Audi pulled onto the shoulder but continued for some two-tenths of a mile before coming to a stop -- a circumstance
which to this experienced officer was unusual.*fn1
When he approached the stopped vehicle, Rivera saw that it had three occupants, two of whom struck him as being particularly large.*fn2 When Rivera asked for credentials, the driver, defendant Bruce Daniels, gave him a valid driver's license but could not furnish any vehicle documentation. The front seat passenger, Jason McCoy, gave him an insurance card for a Ford.
Rivera then returned to his patrol car, called in the rear license plate and learned it belonged to a 1980 Ford. While this was taking place, Rivera noted McCoy reach down under his seat and then reach toward the center console.*fn3 At this point, Rivera feared for his safety and requested backup -- which arrived within seconds.
Now accompanied by Trooper Maguire, Rivera returned to the Audi and asked the occupants to get out. Each were subjected to pat-down searches with negative results and told to sit on the hood of the Audi. Rivera asked McCoy about the movement he had observed and in response was told he, McCoy, didn't know what Rivera was talking about.
Rivera then entered the Audi and looked at the area where he had seen McCoy leaning or moving toward. He saw a paper bag, upright and open, whose contents -- clear plastic bags containing white powder -- were plainly visible. The occupants were arrested
and the suspected narcotics -- later identified as same 325 grams of ...