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State v. James

June 20, 1996


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Stein, and Coleman join in Justice GARIBALDI's opinion. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

State of New Jersey v. Allen James (A-106-95)

Argued March 11, 1996 -- Decided June 20, 1996

GARIBALDI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

On August 6, 1991, Mohamed Abaza was driving his car in Paterson around noon when he approached a man waving by a stop sign. When Abaza stopped his car, the man walked to the driver's side window and pulled a handgun. The man demanded that Abaza exit the car, which he did. As the gunman was getting into the car, a second man entered the passenger's side.

Abaza described the men in detail to the police. He purportedly identified both men through police photograph books. One of the men, Luis Vincent, was the passenger. Abaza identified a Malcolm Johnson as the driver.

The police located Vincent, who volunteered that he had been with Allen James, not Malcolm Johnson. Two weeks later, Abaza notified the police that he was no longer positive that Malcolm Johnson was the gunman. Abaza later visited the police station to look through some more photographs. When he arrived, Allen James was seated in the room. The police told Abaza that a new suspect had been arrested and that he was in the room. Abaza quickly picked James's photograph out as the gunman.

James and Luis Vincent were indicted for robbery. James moved to suppress Abaza's out-of-court identification and any in-court identification arising therefrom. The trial court granted the motion. Luis Vincent entered into a plea agreement with the State and agreed to testify against James.

At trial, Abaza identified Vincent as the passenger. On cross-examination, defense counsel asked the victim to describe the gunman. The State objected. The trial court determined that if James's attorney opened the door to the identification issue, the State could introduce the otherwise-excluded evidence of the victim's prior identification. Defense counsel withdrew the question.

James was convicted of robbery. He was sentenced to an extended term of thirty years in prison with a twelve-year parole disqualifier. He appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the Court granted James's petition for certification.

HELD: Once a defendant seeks to introduce misidentification testimony after the trial court has determined that the identification process was impermissibly suggestive and that the victim's identification of the defendant was patently unreliable, the trial court must not allow the jury to have unlimited access to the suppressed evidence as part of the State's rebuttal testimony.

1. The trial court and the Appellate Division relied on a 1979 federal case (Pettijohn v. Hall) in holding that although defendant had the right to question a witness about a misidentification, when that testimony was intimately interrelated with previously suppressed testimony, defendant waived his right keep that testimony from the jury. (pp. 8-14)

2. Other jurisdictions have decided cases with similar issues under the "opening the door" doctrine. This doctrine allows a party to elicit otherwise inadmissible evidence when the opposing party has made unfair prejudicial use of related evidence. (pp. 14-25)

3. The trial court committed reversible error by forcing defendant to choose between his right of confrontation and his right to have an unreliable identification suppressed. Once the trial court determined that the victim's identification of defendant was "patently unreliable," it was error to conclude that the jury would be able to consider the evidence for substantive purposes. Defendant had a right to introduce the victim's testimony to establish that another person had been identified as the gunman and that the description did not match defendant. (pp. 25-26)

4. Although the State correctly argues that it should be permitted to introduce rebuttal evidence on the issue of misidentification, the trial court erred in not limiting the evidence that could be used. In this case, the defendant was erroneously required to trade one constitutional protection for the ability to exercise another constitutional right. (pp. 26-29)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for a new trial.


The opinion of the Court was delivered by GARIBALDI, J.

This appeal concerns the scope of defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront a witness and defendant's Fifth Amendment due process right to prohibit the introduction into evidence of an identification that resulted from impermissibly suggestive police procedures. Specifically, the issue is whether the trial court erred in ruling that defendant would waive his objection to the victim's suppressed identification of him if he questioned the victim about his earlier misidentification of defendant or about his description of the perpetrator.


At approximately 12:00 p.m. on August 6, 1991, Mohamed Abaza was driving his car in Paterson on the way to the unemployment office. He was driving alone with his windows down. As Abaza's car approached a stop sign at an intersection, a man waved for him to stop. When Abaza stopped his car, the man walked toward the driver's side window. The culprit then pulled out a handgun, pointed it at Abaza's left shoulder, and demanded that he exit the car. Abaza immediately got out of the vehicle, and the man wielding the gun entered the driver's side of the automobile. Abaza testified that while the gunman was making his way into the driver's seat, a second man entered the passenger side of the vehicle. The two assailants then drove off in Abaza's car. At trial, Abaza testified that he was able to see the faces of both assailants clearly.

Immediately after the assailants fled, Abaza walked across the street to a pay phone and called the police. The police arrived on the scene within an hour. The victim explained to the officers what had transpired. At the time, he described the man wielding the gun as being 5'11", thin, approximately thirty-years old, and having short, cropped hair. After some brief questioning, the police invited Abaza to go with them to the station to look through some photograph books in order to identify the assailants.

When they arrived at the police station, the officers provided Abaza with a few photograph books to review, After examining the books, the victim purportedly identified both perpetrators. He identified a photograph of Luis Vincent as a picture of the person who entered his car on the passenger side and a photograph of Malcolm Johnson as a picture of the person who pointed the gun at him. At the time, Abaza told the police that he was 110% sure about the identifications that he had made.

A few days after the victim identified Luis Vincent, the police located Vincent in the Passaic County jail. They had Vincent transported to the Paterson police station and charged him with robbery, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Vincent declined to make a statement. However, he did volunteer that he was with defendant. Vincent did not specifically state that he was with defendant on the ...

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