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State v. Nikola

April 29, 2003

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
VICKI NIKOLA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Municipal Appeal No. 5-3-01.

Before Judges Skillman, Cuff and Winkelstein.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted February 20, 2003

The question presented by this appeal is whether a police officer who has temporarily detained a motorist outside her garage, based on probable cause to believe she has been driving while under the influence of alcohol, may follow the motorist into her garage while she retrieves her driving credentials and then arrest her without a warrant.

Defendant was charged in the Sparta Municipal Court with driving while under the influence of alcohol, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a. *fn1 Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence upon which the charges were based.

At a municipal court hearing on the motion, Edward Walsh, another motorist, testified that around 1 a.m. on December 13, 2000, he observed defendant driving her car in the opposite direction in his lane. Walsh flashed his high beams but she kept coming towards him. After Walsh pulled his car onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision, defendant brought her car to a stop a car length away, then drove past him. Walsh turned his car around and started following defendant. During the next few minutes, Walsh observed defendant bounce off curbs twice and almost hit another car. Walsh wrote down the make and license plate number of defendant's car and called the police to report what he had seen. Walsh followed defendant all the way to her house and showed the police the driveway her car had entered.

Officer John Hanrahan and other members of the Sparta Police Department arrived at defendant's house less than a minute after she pulled into her driveway. Hanrahan parked his car in front of the house and walked down the driveway.

As he approached, Hanrahan saw defendant standing at the entrance to her garage with the garage door open. Defendant said to Hanrahan in an antagonistic tone, "what's this, a raid?" Hanrahan told her the police had received a report she had almost hit another car head-on. Defendant denied being on the road where the reported incident occurred, but admitted she had been driving the car.

While defendant was speaking, Hanrahan was able to smell the odor of alcohol emanating from her breath. He also observed that her eyes were bloodshot and watery. Hanrahan asked defendant whether she had been drinking, and defendant replied that "she had two drinks earlier that evening." Hanrahan then asked defendant to recite the alphabet, but she was unable to do it correctly on either of two attempts. Until this time, Hanrahan remained outside defendant's garage.

After defendant failed to recite the alphabet correctly, Hanrahan asked for her driving credentials. Defendant walked to her car inside the garage to retrieve those documents, and Hanrahan followed her. Hanrahan observed that defendant was unsteady on her feet when she walked. She also had difficulty getting her license out of her purse and her other driving credentials out of the glove compartment of the car. Hanrahan attempted to administer additional field sobriety tests to defendant, but she was unable to do them properly. When defendant almost fell down, Hanrahan discontinued the tests and placed defendant under arrest. After defendant was brought to the Sparta Police Department, she refused to take a breathalyzer test.

Defendant's husband, Richard Nikola, who entered the garage from the house around the time defendant was retrieving her driving credentials, testified on her behalf. His testimony conflicted with Hanrahan's testimony concerning some of the details of what occurred after Hanrahan entered the garage. Defendant did not testify.

The municipal court judge concluded that Officer Hanrahan did not have probable cause to believe defendant had been driving while under the influence before entering her garage and therefore the warrantless entry into the garage and defendant's subsequent arrest violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution.

The State appealed the grant of defendant's motion to suppress to the Law Division. The Law Division determined that all evidence obtained before Officer Hanrahan entered defendant's garage, including Walsh's observations of her erratic operation of her car and Hanrahan's observations of her from outside the garage, would be admissible at trial. However, the court affirmed the suppression of the additional evidence of defendant's intoxicated condition after Hanrahan entered the garage. The Law Division also determined that Hanrahan had probable cause to arrest defendant before he entered the garage. The court did not specifically decide whether the warrantless ...


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