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State v. Segars

June 26, 2002


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


In this appeal, the Supreme Court reviews a trial court's conclusion that a defendant, who was charged with operating a motor vehicle while his driving privileges were suspended, failed to sustain his burden of proving discriminatory targeting.

Defendant, Alan Segars, an African-American, was charged in Ridgewood Municipal Court with driving with a suspended license, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-40. Throughout the proceedings, Segars maintained that Officer Williams checked his license plates on a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) because of his race. All parties agreed that if that were the case, his action would have been impermissible. Prior to trial in municipal court, Segars filed several motions, including a motion to suppress the evidence against him, and for discovery of Officer Williams= personnel file, the Ridgewood Police Department's procedures for use of the MDT, and any reports regarding Officer Williams= use of the MDT on the date in question, February 15, 1999.

During trial, Segars testified that on the day in question, he drove his car into the parking lot of the Bank of New York in Ridgewood, parked next to an unoccupied police vehicle B the only other vehicle in the lot at the time B and entered the bank to use the automated teller machine. On the way in, he passed Officer Williams, who is Caucasian, exiting the bank. Segars noticed that the officer Asort of was looking with sort of a question mark on his face,@ and that as Segars was getting ready to use the ATM, the officer was Asort of looking back.@ By the time Segars completed his transaction and returned to his car, Officer Williams= car was blocking the exit lane. Segars exited the lot through the teller's lane and drove next door to the Quick Stop. After a few minutes in that store, Segars returned to his car where he was approached by Officer Williams, who asked to see his credentials. Segars produced them and, when asked, admitted that his license had been suspended.

According to Segars, before issuing him a ticket, Officer Williams went to another car parked on the street in front of the bank and talked to its occupant. Another officer arrived and issued a ticket to the occupant of that car, who was Caucasian, while Officer Williams issued a ticket to Segars. Officer Williams offered Segars a ride home, which he accepted. Segars testified that Officer Williams was polite and made no comments in respect of race.

Contrary to Segars= testimony, Officer Williams testified that Segars= unoccupied vehicle already was in the bank parking lot when he drove in. He decided to check the plates on his MDT, and may have checked the plates on another car that was parked in the lot at the same time. After determining that the driving privileges of the registered owner of the Segars= vehicle had been suspended for driving while impaired, and while waiting for Segars to return to his vehicle, Officer Williams checked the plates on another car that had pulled up in front of the bank because it had an expired inspection sticker. He saw the driver of that vehicle use the ATM. That driver, who was the Caucasian Segars previously mentioned, also was issued a summons.

Officer Williams further testified that he did not use the ATM within the time span in question, admitting however, that he may have used it earlier in the day. He also testified that he never saw Segars in the bank or anywhere else prior to running the MDT check. When asked why he Aran@ Segars= plate, he answered that he ran all the plates in the bank parking lot, it being a bank holiday. He further indicated that he ran plates frequently, without rhyme or reason.

At the end of the first day of trial, the Municipal Court denied Segars= discovery motion for Officer Williams= personnel file and motor vehicle stops (other than the materials he already had received from the State), but granted his request for a copy of the police department's MDT policy and procedures. In making its ruling, the court assumed that Segars= account of the events was true and that Officer Williams had seen him in the bank prior to running his plates, but

concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the officer had run the plates based on Segars= race. The court concluded that it was more likely that Segars was correct regarding the chronology because it is understandable that he would remember the event better.

On the second day of trial, Segars presented the records of the Bank of New York regarding the usage of the ATM in the day in question. Those records supported Segars= testimony where it conflicted with Officer Williams= testimony. Specifically, they supported Segars= contention that he and Officer Williams first encountered one another in the bank and that the officer ran the plates only after that encounter. The police records further supported that contention, showing that the officer ran Segars= plates after he used the ATM and after he ran the plates on another vehicle. Officer Williams was not called upon to explain the discrepencies between his testimony and the records.

The court denied Segars= motion to suppress, concluding that the officer ran the plates independent of his knowledge that Segars was African-American. In reaching that conclusion, the court concluded that Officer Williams indeed had seen Segars before running the plates and thus knew that he was African-American. The court assumed that the officer either had forgotten his use of the ATM prior to running the plates, or simply did not want to admit to running such a personal errand during working hours. However, despite its finding that the officer's testimony was not credible in respect of the timing of his encounter with Segars (and thus his knowledge that he was African-American before running the plate) the court concluded that under a totality of the circumstances, including the fact that the officer ran the plates of two other vehicles, at least one of which belonged to a Caucasian, the plates had been run for other than racial purposes.

Segars pled guilty to driving while suspended and was sentenced. However, his plea was conditioned on his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. On his appeal de novo on the record in Superior Court, Law Division, Segars again was convicted and the same sentence imposed. In its ruling, the Superior Court held that Agreat deference@ should be given to the trial court's findings B it having been in the best position to see and hear the witnesses and the evidence B and that the Superior Court's role in its review of the Municipal Court's conclusions and assessments was to determine whether the lower court's findings could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence presented in the record. In reviewing the record, the Superior Court noted nothing to indicate that the summons was issued for any racially motivated reason, as claimed by Segars.

Segars appealed to the Appellate Division. Like the Law Division, the Appellate Division determined that it was not in a good position to judge credibility and should not make new credibility findings. Thus, its standard of review was whether there is sufficient credible evidence present in the record to uphold the findings of the Law Division. A majority of the Appellate Division concluded that the record supported the conclusion that Officer Williams ran Segars plates for valid reasons. One judge dissented, arguing that the panel should not uphold the municipal court's factually unsupported suggestion for Officer Williams= lack of credibility or the Law Division's deference to the municipal court's findings on its de novo review. The dissenting judge concluded that the evidence suggested that Officer Williams had not merely forgotten he entered the bank that day and that where the State's only witness was Aso clearly lacking in credibility, and the lack of credibility related to the events leading up to the MDT check, the New Jersey judiciary cannot rely on the technical rules of appellate jurisprudence to sustain the conviction.

The matter is before the Supreme Court as of right, based on the dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: The Municipal Court of Ridgewood erred in ruling that the defendant in this case, who was charged with operating a motor vehicle while his driving privileges were suspended, failed to sustain his burden of proving discriminatory targeting on the part of the officer, who ran a Mobile Data Terminal check on the defendant's license plate.

1. Because MDT checks are not traditional searches subject to Fourth Amendment restrictions, they can be Arandom@ and not based on reasonable suspicion. However, MDT checks must not be based on impermissible motives such as race. MDT checks motivated solely by race are illegal and the evidence resulting from a subsequent stop must be suppressed. (pp. 10-15)

2. A defendant advancing a racial targeting /discrimination claim has the ultimate burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the police acted with discriminatory purpose. In addition to that ultimate burden, defendant bears the preliminary obligation of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Once he or she does that through relevant evidence and inferences, the burden of production shifts to the State to articulate a race-neutral basis for its action. (pp. 15-16)

3. The burden of production has been described as light, and essentially requires that the evidence produced shows a race-neutral motivation and thus raises a genuine issue of fact framed with sufficient clarity so that the other party as a full and fair opportunity demonstrate pretext. Once the State has met its burden of production by articulating a race-neutral explanation for its actions, the presumption of discrimination simply drops out of the picture. (pp. 16- 17)

4. Defendant retains the ultimate burden of proving discriminatory enforcement by a preponderance or greater weight of the credible evidence. From the testimony offered during the trial, a trier of fact could infer that Officer Williams checked Segars= plates because of his race and testified falsely about what he did because he knew that racial targeting is wrong. Thus, Segars met his burden of establishing a prima facie case of selective enforcement. (pp. 18-20)

5. Although the State met its burden of production through the officer's testimony that the MDT check was part of his practice of randomly checking plates, the evidence that raised the inference of racial targeting also impeached Officer Williams= race-neutral rationale, and a critical part of the State's rebuttal should have been the production of an explanation for Officer Williams= inaccurate testimony. (pp. 20-21)

6. An inference of discriminatory targeting was established by Segars= testimony and documentary evidence, by Officer Williams= inaccurate testimony, and by the failure of the State to recall Officer Williams for an explanation. The State did not defeat the inference. (pp. 21-22)

7. It was not appropriate for the Municipal Court to proffer an explanation for Officer Williams= inaccurate testimony and no deference should have been accorded the wholly unsupported conclusions the Municipal Court reached by speculating about what prompted the officer's inaccurate testimony. (pp. 22-23)

8. Under the unusual facts of this case, a reasonable fact-finder would have to find that Segars had met his burden of persuasion. (pp. 23-24)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

JUSTICE LONG has filed a separate dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE LaVECCHIA joins. Justice Long would have affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division that deferred to the credibility evaluation of the trial court. She believed that regardless of the inconsistencies in Officer Williams= testimony, there was objective evidence to undergird the Municipal Court's assessment of the officer's credibility and its ultimate determination that Segars did not prove discriminatory targeting. Thus, she believed that the reviewing courts properly deferred to that determination.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, VERNIERO, and ZAZZALI join in this PER CURIAM opinion. JUSTICE LONG has filed a separate dissenting ...

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