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State v. Pitcher

July 22, 2005

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BRIAN PITCHER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Municipal Court, A-40-03.

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued May 17, 2005

Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Chambers.

This appeal requires us to decide whether an officer who stops a car relying on Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) records reporting that its owner's license is suspended must be deemed to have acted "unreasonably" and without adequate cause for intrusion upon rights protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution if the license suspension information is later found to be inaccurate. Defendant argues that the evidence acquired as a result of the motor vehicle stop based on erroneous license suspension data must be suppressed because New Jersey does not recognize a "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. Because this officer's reliance on the DMV data base was objectively reasonable and his actions were consistent with constitutional restrictions on search and seizure, we conclude that the "good faith" exception has no relevance to the case, and therefore affirm.

Defendant Brian H. Pitcher plead guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and he was sentenced to attend twelve hours of education at the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC) and required to pay a fine of $250, a surcharge of $200, a $50 VCCB assessment, a $75 SNSF assessment, a $30 LEOTEF penalty and $30 for court costs. Defendant was also charged with driving while under a license suspension, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-40. The State conceded that a verdict of not guilty should be entered on that charge. At the time of his plea, defendant expressly noted his intention to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress evidence of his intoxication.*fn1 See R. 3:5-7(d).

The record we review is slim. Both courts below decided the matter on stipulated facts, and there were few facts stipulated. On February 19, 2003, an order was entered suspending defendant's driver's license for non-payment of child support. On February 28, 2003, a probation officer assigned to child support matters prepared and submitted to the DMV a certification indicating that the suspension order was erroneously entered and that defendant was not liable for payment of a restoration fee. Defendant was not notified about either the suspension or the subsequent attempt to rescind it. On September 19, 2003, the DMV data base, which is available to law enforcement officers through mobile data terminals (MDTs), continued to reflect that defendant's license was suspended.

On September 19, 2003, Officer Covolesky of the Mantua Township Police Department saw defendant's car in a WaWa parking lot. For reasons not reflected on the record, Covolesky attempted to check the license plate number from his MDT. Unable to complete the check, Covolesky radioed a request for a check of the license plate number. A second officer responded and accurately reported that the data available on his MDT showed that the license of the registered owner was suspended. When defendant drove from the parking lot, Covolesky followed, stopped the car, approached and made observations, not set forth on the record, that led him to conclude that defendant was intoxicated. He took defendant into custody. His blood alcohol content subsequently was measured at .18. Covolesky charged defendant with driving while his license was suspended, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-40, and driving while under the influence, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

Defendant does not challenge the officer's decision to check his license plates or contend that the officer's observations after stopping the vehicle were inadequate to provide probable cause for his arrest for driving while under the influence. He does not contend that the DMV data base of license suspensions is generally unreliable. His only claim is that the initial stop was unconstitutional because it was based on what later proved to be an erroneous record of his license suspension. From that premise, he argues that the evidence obtained as a result of the motor vehicle stop must be suppressed because New Jersey does not recognize a "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. See State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95 (1987).

The "good faith" exception has no relevance to this case. That exception limits the remedy for police conduct that exceeds the restrictions on search and seizure imposed by the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed. 2d 677 (1984). This motor vehicle stop was within the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment.

When a police officer stops a car there is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. U.S. Const. amend. IV; N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7; see Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1396, 59 L.Ed. 2d 660, 667 (1979); State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 475 (1998). The brief and minimally intrusive seizure involved in an automobile stop is not violative of the constitutional restrictions against "unreasonable" searches when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred or is continuing. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 1772, 135 L.Ed. 2d 89, 95-96 (1996); State v. Hickman, 335 N.J. Super. 623, 634 (App. Div. 2000). "The substance" of the probable cause standard is whether there is "a reasonable ground for belief of guilt." Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371, 124 S.Ct. 795, 800, 157 L.Ed. 2d 769, 775 (2003); State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 21 (2004). Probable cause is present "where the facts and circumstances within [an] officer's knowledge," based on "reasonably trustworthy information," are sufficient to support a reasonable belief "that an offense has been or is being committed." Ibid.

In addition, a brief traffic stop is constitutionally permissible under a less stringent standard. A "police officer is justified in stopping a motor vehicle when he has an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle offense." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470 (1999).

Although stopping a car and detaining its occupants constitute a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the governmental interest in investigating an officer's reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, may outweigh the Fourth Amendment interest of the driver and passengers in remaining secure from the intrusion. ...


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