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State v. Bruns

May 09, 2002

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN E. BRUNS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

This appeal involves a warrantless search of a vehicle that revealed evidence implicating defendant John Bruns in a crime.

During the early morning hours of July 27, 1997, Officer John Seidler stopped a vehicle for speeding in Lakewood Township. The driver of the vehicle, Lynette Edwards was not able to produce a driver's license, so the officer ran a Department of Motor Vehicles computer check and found that her driving privileges had been suspended. In addition, the computer listed an outstanding arrest warrant for Edwards from the Lakewood Municipal Court for a motor vehicle offense, and another outstanding warrant for Edwards from the Ocean County Superior Court for failure to appear on a violation of probation. Based on the outstanding warrants, the officer placed Edwards under arrest, handcuffed her, searched her, and seated her in his patrol car.

Thereafter, Officer Seidler asked Walter Evans, the only passenger in the vehicle, to step out. At that point, he conducted a search of the vehicle. During the course of the search, Officer Seidler found a toy handgun and a large knife under the front passenger seat. After taking Edwards to the police station and processing her, the officer placed the knife and the toy handgun in his locker. He made a report of the finding three months later on learning that the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office and the Lakewood Police Department were investigating an armed robbery that occurred on or about July 20, 1998, seven days prior to the stop and search of the Edwards vehicle, and that possibly involved Evans and defendant Bruns.

In his subsequent trial for armed robbery, defendant Bruns made a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search of Edwards' car, alleging that Seidler's search of the vehicle and seizure of the toy handgun and the knife were unlawful. The motion judge denied the motion, concluding that the search was incidental to Edwards' lawful arrest and that the steps the officers took were necessary given the particular circumstances. Bruns was convicted of armed robbery.

In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's decision denying defendant's motion to suppress. The court found that the search did not fall into any of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement because, consistent with his testimony at the suppression hearing, Officer Seidler did not have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained contraband or evidence of crime, and/or did not reasonably believe that Edwards or Evans posed a danger to the officers.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification in which it maintained that the Appellate Division should not have reached the issue of whether the search was illegal because defendant did not have a proprietary, possessory, or participatory interest in the vehicle searched or the evidence retrieved from it, and therefore did not have standing to move to suppress the evidence seized.

HELD: Defendant Bruns lacks standing to challenge the search of a vehicle yielding evidence used by the prosecution during his trial for armed robbery given the passage of seven days between the crime and the seizure of that evidence, Bruns's lack of any physical proximity to the evidence when it was seized, and the lack of any connection between Bruns and the events leading to the initial motor vehicle stop or to the arrest that led to the search of the vehicle.

1. A defendant must demonstrate that he has standing to contest the admission of evidence obtained by search or seizure, which generally requires a court to inquire whether defendant has interests that are substantial enough to qualify him as a person aggrieved by the allegedly unlawful search and seizure. (pp. 6-7)

2. New Jersey courts have generally applied a broad rule of standing to contest the admission of evidence obtained by search or seizure. (pp. 20-21)

3. Although there is no reason to depart from the broad standing rule that entitles a criminal defendant to challenge an unreasonable search and seizure under the New Jersey Constitution if he or she can demonstrate a proprietary, possessory, or participatory interest in the place searched or the items seized, defendant has failed to demonstrate an interest sufficient to give him standing, as his alleged connection to the place searched and items seized simply is far too attenuated to support a constitutional Although there is no reason to depart from the broad stan

4. That evidence implicates a defendant in a crime is not, in and of itself, sufficient to confer standing. There also must be at a minimum some contemporary connection between the defendant and the place searched or the items seized. (p. 27)

5. Although defendants will be able to establish an interest in the property seized or the place searched in most cases, if a substantial time passes between the crime and the seizure of the evidence, and a proprietary connection between the defendant and the evidence no longer exists, a defendant's basis for being aggrieved by the search will have diminished. In addition, a showing that the search was not directed at the defendant or at someone who is connected to the crime for which he has been chargedAlthough defendants will be able to establish an interest in the property seized or the place sear

6. The passage of seven days between the crime and the seizure of the evidence, Bruns's lack of any physical proximity to the evidence when it was seized, and the lack of any connection between him and the events leading to the initial motor vehicle stop or the arrest that led to the search of the vehicle preclude Bruns from having standing to challenge the vehicle search. (pp. 29-30)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and defendant's conviction is REINSTATED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA, and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein, J.

Argued January 3, 2002

The primary questions in this appeal relate to the warrantless search that revealed evidence implicating defendant John Bruns in a crime. The Law Division denied defendant's motion to suppress the evidence seized from a motor vehicle that connected him to an armed robbery for which he subsequently was convicted. The Appellate Division reversed, suppressing the evidence in reliance on the principles set forth by this Court in State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184, 208-09 (1994). We granted the State's petition for certification, 169 N.J. 607 (2001), and now reinstate defendant's conviction. We agree with the State that the Pierce issue need not be considered because defendant lacked standing to bring a motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the allegedly unlawful search and seizure.

I.

The facts of the case essentially are undisputed. In the early morning hours of July 27, 1997, Officer John Seidler stopped a vehicle for speeding in Lakewood Township. After effectuating the stop, Seidler approached the vehicle and observed a temporary registration tag that was due to expire on July 30, 1997. The tag listed Barbara Edwards as the owner. When first asked by Seidler, the driver said her name was Lynette Edwards. Because he had observed the name Barbara ...


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