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State v. Smith

January 27, 2005; as amended February 4, 2005


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Municipal Court, A-33-03.

Before Judges Skillman, Parrillo*fn1 and Grall.

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


Argued November 9, 2004

We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal from an order suppressing statements made by defendant Jeffrey Smith without benefit of Miranda warnings. The case requires us to consider the circumstances under which an officer responding to a domestic dispute must give warnings mandated by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed. 2d 694 (1966). We conclude that a police officer may question those present without giving Miranda warnings, so long as the inquiries are reasonably related to confirming or dispelling suspicion and those questioned are not restrained to a degree associated with formal arrest.

At about 1:30 a.m., three officers of the Mantua Township Police Department responded to a domestic violence call. Mrs. Smith was waiting at the door. She told Patrolman Grady that her husband had choked her and thrown her against the wall. Grady saw red marks on her neck and broken skin on her left elbow. Smith told Grady her husband was a corrections officer and that he was upstairs in bed.

In order to acquire more information,"get both sides of the story," and see whether defendant was injured, Officer Grady went upstairs alone. He found defendant in bed, under the covers. The room was dark, and Grady did not know whether the corrections officer had a weapon. He used his flashlight as he walked to the side of the bed and shined it into defendant's eyes as a"safety tactic," for"tactical advantage." Defendant"seemed to be very alert." Grady asked,"What happened tonight?" Defendant said,"We got into a fight." Grady asked one more question:"Did you choke your wife and throw her into the wall?" Defendant responded,"Yeah." At that point Grady placed defendant under arrest. Grady estimated that he was in defendant's bedroom less than five minutes and that the questioning took a matter of seconds.

Defendant acknowledged that his encounter with Grady took a matter of moments. He awoke to Grady standing over him at the side of the bed and a flashlight shining in his face. He had worn boxer shorts to bed. Grady did not touch him, tell him he could not leave, or tell him that he was under arrest. Because of his training, he thought that if his wife had called the police he was going to be arrested even if he did nothing wrong.

The trial judge found:

The questioning was brief. Only two questions were posed. There was only one officer present in the room at the time of questioning. The defendant was not physically restrained. The defendant was not told that he was under arrest or that he was not free to leave. Also, the defendant was in his bedroom in his own home, which is not a traditionally coercive atmosphere.

There are also various factors that indicate that the questioning of the defendant was a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings. The defendant was clearly in a vulnerable position as he was clad only in boxer shorts and in bed at the time of questioning. The officer was standing on the defendant's side of the bed, shining a light in his eyes, in the officer's words"to temporarily blind the defendant in order to gain a strategic advantage" (in case he was armed or a weapon was near). A vulnerable position of this type is likely to make an individual more susceptible to coercion. The defendant had just awoken or was in the process of trying to fall asleep. This state may also make him more susceptible to coercion. The officer also was in some way blocking the defendant's egress from the bed and the defendant, from his experience, did not think that he was free to leave.... Here the questioning was of short duration, there was only one officer involved and it occurred in a place familiar to the defendant. In this instance, however, one must look carefully at the totality of circumstances in determining whether the questioning took place in a custodial manner. The court finds that the State has not borne its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the questioning of defendant took place in a non-custodial atmosphere. The court finds that the defendant's freedom of action was deprived in a significant way. The environment was coercive and there was a compelling atmosphere present. Therefore, the officer was required to have given Miranda warnings....

We review the record on a motion to suppress to determine whether the findings are supported by credible evidence and the legal conclusions are valid. State v. Alvarez, 238 N.J. Super. 560, 564 (App. Div. 1990) (search). We give deference to those findings"influenced by the judge's opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case...." Ibid. Our disagreement here is with the judge's application of the law.

Miranda warnings are a prerequisite to"custodial interrogation," which is"questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of... freedom of action in a significant way." Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 444, 86 S.Ct. at 1612, 16 L.Ed. 2d at 706-07; State v. Stott, 171 N.J. 343, 364 (2002)."The requirement that interrogators warn suspects of certain rights is deemed necessary due to pressure inherent in incommunicado interrogation of individuals in a police-dominated atmosphere." Stott, supra, 171 N.J. at 364. For that reason, the warnings are not required before"[g]eneral on-the-scene questioning as to facts surrounding a crime or other general questioning of citizens in the fact-finding process[,]" Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 477, 86 S.Ct. at 1629, 16 L.Ed. 2d at 725, unless the totality of the objective circumstances attending the questioning, viewed from the perspective of the reasonable person, impose a"restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." Yarborough v. Alvardo, 541 U.S. 652, ___, 124 S.Ct. 2140, 2149, 158 L.Ed. 2d 938, 951 (2004). Relevant circumstances and factors considered in evaluating the restraint involved under the circumstances of the case include: the time, place and duration of the detention; the physical surroundings; the nature and degree of the pressure applied to detain the individual; language used by the officer; and objective indications that the person questioned is a suspect. Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 325, 114 S.Ct. 1526, 1530, 128 L.Ed. 2d 293, 300 (1994); Stott, supra, 171 N.J. at 365; State v. Pierson, 223 N.J. Super. 62, 67 (App. Div. 1988).

We begin our analysis of the applicability of Miranda warnings in the context of an officer's response to a call about a domestic dispute by recognizing that police action subsequent to entering the residence is likely to involve some restraint on the occupants' freedom of action. In that respect, the situation is analogous to field investigations of suspicious conduct authorized by Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed. 2d 889 (1968), and traffic stops authorized by Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 82 L.Ed. 2d 317 (1984). It is well-settled that a person questioned in either of those situations is"detained." See Berkemer, supra, 468 U.S. at 439-41, 104 S.Ct. at 3150-51, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 333-34; State v. Toro, 229 N.J. Super. 215, 220 (App. ...

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