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State v. Samuels

January 31, 2007

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



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

A Monmouth County Grand Jury returned an indictment against defendant, Brian Samuels, and his co-defendant, Godfred Mainhooh (a.k.a. Rahim), charging them with conspiracy to commit armed robbery (count one); first-degree armed robbery (count two); second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose (count three); and fourth-degree aggravated assault by pointing a firearm (count four). Samuels also was charged individually with second-degree possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (count six); and third-degree resisting arrest (count ten). Mainhooh absented himself, resulting in Samuels being tried alone.

At trial, the State offered testimony about a narcotics investigation conducted by the Long Brach Police Department on May 4, 2000. In an attempt to purchase narcotics from a person named "Rahim," the police secured two adjacent hotel rooms on the second floor of the Fountains Motel. Undercover Officers Pilone and Roebuck were stationed in Room 229; other officers were stationed in Room 230; and additional officers were stationed around the hotel in surveillance. At around ten o'clock in the evening, Officer Pilone called Rahim (Mainhooh) from Room 229 to buy drugs. Mainhooh agreed to sell Pilone twenty decks of heroin and some crack cocaine for $1,200. Mainhooh arrived with Samuels at the hotel in a taxi cab. None of the officers observed the two men arrive at the hotel. At some point, Mainhooh and Samuels proceeded to the second floor, looking for Room 229.

When Mainhooh knocked on the door to Room 229, Officers Pilone and Roebuck came out of the room, announcing that they were police officers. Officer Pilone observed Mainhooh brandishing a gun and eventually pinned Mainhooh against the railing. Samuels grabbed Pilone and struggled with him, enabling Mainhooh to flee. Pilone subdued Samuels and stated that he knew that Mainhooh and Samuels were there to sell drugs. Samuels responded; "[w]e don't have any drugs; we don't have any drugs." Roebuck and two other officers chased Mainhooh and Roebuck observed Mainhooh throwing something that made a metallic clatter on the parking lot pavement. After Mainhooh was apprehended, the officers found a loaded and cocked nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun in the parking lot where Mainhooh was observed dropping an object to the pavement. No drugs were found.

Samuels' testimony at trial differed significantly from the account given by the Long Branch police. According to Samuels, he ran into Mainhooh at about 10:30 p.m. outside a liquor store in Asbury Park. Mainhooh told Samuels they needed to take a ride. Samuels stated that he never asked Mainhooh what they were going to do and that for all he knew, they were going to a house full of girls. Samuels claimed to have fallen asleep in the back of the cab, awakening when they arrived at the Fountains Motel. Samuels testified to following Mainhooh to Room 229 but denied that Mainhooh had a gun. Samuels also denied having jumped or scuffled with Officer Pilone.

Samuels was convicted by a jury on counts one, two, three, four, and ten of the indictment. The charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (count six) was dismissed. Samuels was sentenced to an aggregate term of fifty year's imprisonment with a seventeen-year period of parole ineligibility.

Samuels appealed his convictions, arguing, among other things, that there was inadequate evidence to support the conspiracy and armed robbery counts; that the trial judge should have charged the jury with the lesser included offense of attempted robbery; and that the jury instructions were incorrect and so confusing as to have led the jury into error. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court on those issues.

The Supreme Court granted Samuels' petition for certification and the amicus curiae motion for leave to appear filed by the Attorney General.

HELD: The State submitted sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that

Samuels conspired to and did commit an armed robbery. Nonetheless, the convictions for conspiracy and armed robbery must be reversed and retried in view of the trial court's failure to charge the lesser-included offense of attempted robbery and the court's improper charge on the elements of conspiracy and accomplice liability.

1. When examining a motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of the State's case or at the close of all evidence, the Court must confine its analysis of the adequacy of the evidence to the State's case and the inferences to be derived therefrom. According to the language of the conspiracy statute, the agreement to commit a specific crime is at the heart of a conspiracy charge. Actual commission of the crime is not a prerequisite to conspirator liability; it is the agreement that is pivotal. Conspiracy may be proven through circumstantial evidence, which is to be tested by the rules of ordinary reasoning governing individuals in the ordinary affairs of life. (Pp. 8-12)

2. There is no direct evidence that Samuels and Mainhooh agreed to commit robbery: no one overheard them planning or discussing the matter, and neither Samuels nor Mainhooh admitted to such an agreement. Thus, the conspiracy conviction can only stand if an agreement reasonably can be discerned from the circumstantial evidence. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division's analysis that the State's evidence, with all interconnected inferences, was sufficient to warrant submission of the conspiracy charge to the jury for consideration. A juror could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of Samuels and Mainhooh, from beginning to end, evidenced an agreement to rob Pilone. Samuels took an hour-long cab ride at night with Mainhooh; he helped search for the appropriate room; a gun was drawn; Samuels assisted in helping Mainhooh escape; and Samuels declared that neither he nor Mainhooh had any drugs. (Pp. 12-17)

3. Samuels testified that Mainhooh did not brandish a gun at the motel and that he did not cause or threaten harm before the police intervened. That evidence, if believed by the jury, could have sustained a conviction for attempted robbery. Therefore, it was error for the judge to have failed to charge attempted robbery. Samuels is entitled to a new trial on the robbery count, where the lesser-included charge is to be charged in the jury instructions. (Pp. 17-21)

4. To convict Samuels, the State had to prove that he was liable for Mainhooh's conduct. Both conspiracy and accomplice liability are principles by which a person may be held legally responsible for the conduct of someone else. But the two concepts are not identical. The critical difference is that conspiracy requires proof of an agreement to commit a crime whereas accomplice liability does not. The trial judge in his instructions to the jury incorrectly obliterated that distinction. That error is not harmless because there is no assurance that the jurors understood and applied the correct legal principles in reaching their verdict on the conspiracy count. (Pp. 21-26)

Judgment of the Appellate Division affirming Samuels' conviction for conspiracy and armed robbery is REVERSED. The conspiracy and armed robbery counts are REMANDED for retrial in accordance with this opinion.

JUSTICE ALBIN, dissenting, in which JUSTICE WALLACE joins, does not agree with the majority that the State presented sufficient evidence from which to conclude that Samuels committed an armed robbery, conspiracy to commit an armed robbery, or an attempted robbery as a lesser-included offense. Rather, there was a complete absence of such evidence and, therefore, the robbery charges should not have been submitted to the jury for its consideration. Samuels was entitled to a judgment of acquittal on the armed robbery and conspiracy charges and, consequently, the retrial violates double jeopardy principles.

JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE WALLACE joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued September 26, 2006

Pursuant to an indictment returned by a Monmouth County Grand Jury, defendant, Brian Samuels and his co-defendant, Godfred Mainhooh (a.k.a. Rahim), were charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1 (count one); first-degree armed robbery, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1 (count two); second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a (count three); and fourth-degree aggravated assault by pointing a firearm contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4) (count four). Defendant also was charged individually with second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b (count six), and third-degree resisting arrest, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a (count ten).*fn1 Because Mainhooh had absented himself, defendant was tried alone.

At trial, the testimony elicted on behalf of the State was as follows: On May 4, 2000, the Long Branch Police Department conducted a narcotics investigation in which they attempted to purchase narcotics from an individual named "Rahim." The police first secured two adjacent hotel rooms (room numbers 229 and 230) on the second floor of the Fountains Motel in Long Branch. Officers Pilone and Roebuck were stationed in Room 229. Two backup officers (Magarino and Shea) were stationed in Room 230 and an additional officer, Morey, was positioned on the roof of the motel. In addition, marked and unmarked patrol cars were stationed near the motel complex.

Around ten o'clock that night, Pilone placed a telephone call from Room 229 to Rahim, the subject of the investigation, Pilone identified himself as "Jimmy" and explained that they had met at "Mommas House" on Fourth Avenue in Asbury Park.

Pilone testified:

I told him I had a dope habit, a heroin habit. I told him I needed two bundles of heroin and the rest of the -- we had $1200 to spend. I needed two bundles of heroin, which is 20 decks of heroin, and the rest I wanted in crack cocaine because we were having some type of party and my friends wanted crack cocaine.

Pilone advised Rahim where he could be found and asked him to deliver the drugs. Rahim agreed to provide the drugs within a half-hour. Minutes later, Rahim called the motel switchboard and reached room 229, confirming Pilone's presence there. Pilone told Rahim to "bring [him] good stuff, or good product." Rahim responded, "Don't worry I'll take care of you" and told Pilone to look for him to arrive in a cab.

None of the officers saw Rahim arrive at the motel. However, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Officer Morey alerted the others that two men were coming up the staircase leading to room 229. They were defendant and co-defendant Mainhooh. As the men walked along the second-floor balcony of the motel, they appeared to be conversing and checking the numbers on the doors of the rooms. Morey did not see either man with a weapon.

Mainhooh knocked on the door of room 229. Pilone looked through the peephole, saw him, and inquired, "Who?" The reply was "Rahim." Pilone alerted the members of his group that they were moving in. Roebuck opened the door, Pilone "cut in front of him" and "rushed out," "yelling police, police, police." He was wearing a t-shirt with a police decal, a badge on a lanyard around his neck, a gun belt, handcuffs, and a police radio. Pilone explained:

I rush out. I'm yelling, police, police, police. I see, as I am entering the doorway, I see Rahim, and off to my right I see Mr. Samuels standing off to the right.

As I am nearing Rahim, my intent was to grab him. I look and I notice that he is, in his right hand he is holding what I believe to be [9] mm pistol, automatic weapon.

At the time it was [pointed] at my chest, and I was already committed. I was already moving forward. There is nothing I could do. If I stopped, backed up, he would have time to shoot me.

I kind of ducked a little bit. I knocked his hand up and I pushed him back against the railing.

He was aiming like this. As I am coming out yelling police, he had this look of surprise on his face. He started backing up. As he is backing up, the gun is coming up from my chest up towards my face. That's when I kind of leaned over, ducked down, whatever I did. . . . .

Pilone quickly pinned Mainhooh against the railing. At that point, defendant grabbed Pilone and struggled with him, allowing Mainhooh to flee. Pilone pulled defendant into room 229 where they fell to the floor and wrestled for approximately a minute and a half before defendant was placed in handcuffs. After defendant was secured, Pilone stated to him that he knew that defendant and Mainhooh were there to sell drugs. Defendant replied, "[w]e don't have any drugs; we don't have any drugs." (emphasis added).

While Pilone struggled with and arrested defendant, Roebuck chased Mainhooh. Magarino and Shea blocked the stairway, forcing Mainhooh to the end of the balcony, where he was cornered. Mainhooh hesitated "for a second, and then . . . jumped over the balcony just as Officer Shea grabbed his sweatshirt." He got up and fled through the back parking lot of the motel.

Roebuck, Shea and Magarino ran down the stairs in pursuit of Mainhooh. Roebuck saw Mainhooh throw something in the parking lot and heard a "metallic clatter like something heavy metal hitting the pavement." Roebuck and the others later apprehended Mainhooh in the woods. After the arrest, Roebuck found a loaded and cocked nine-millimeter semi-automatic Astra handgun in the parking lot where he had heard the metal object hit the pavement. No drugs were found.

Although Pilone had testified, without objection, that he told defendant that he knew defendant was there to sell drugs, at trial Pilone stated that "[t]hey weren't there to sell me narcotics; they were there to rob me." Pilone admitted however that he neither reported the crime as a robbery nor discussed robbery in his testimony before the grand jury.

Pilone also testified that he had been involved in "hundreds" of narcotics arrests and had special training in narcotics. He explained that "[t]here [are] no certainties in narcotics. You could order drugs; they may bring your drugs or they may try to rob you, to try to get the money from you." ...


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