On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment Number 06-01-0055.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 23, 2007
Before Judges Coburn and Fuentes.
Defendant Peter John Price was tried before a jury and convicted of one count of second-degree eluding, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2b. The trial court, sitting as the trier of fact, also found defendant guilty of related motor vehicle offenses, including speeding, N.J.S.A. 39:4-98, careless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, driving while suspended, N.J.S.A. 39:3-40, failure to observe a traffic control device, N.J.S.A. 39:4-81, following too closely, N.J.S.A. 39:4-89, and failure to observe marked lanes, N.J.S.A. 39:4-88A.
After merging the Title 39 offenses with the conviction for eluding, the court sentenced defendant to a term of seven years, and imposed the mandatory fines and penalties. We gather the following facts from the evidence presented at trial.
While on patrol at around midnight in a marked police car, Hazlet Police Officer William Agar noticed a small four-door car, later identified as a black Volkswagen Jetta, traveling southbound turn into the eastbound lane of Highway 36. Agar characterized the manner in which the car switched lanes as "erratic." Immediately thereafter, the Jetta began tailgating a car in the right lane, and then swerved quickly around the car and continued at a high rate of speed.
Agar proceeded to follow the Jetta, catching up to it at the intersection of Highway 36 and Laurel Avenue. At this point, Agar decided to stop the Jetta; he radioed his intention to police headquarters and provided a description of the vehicle including the license plate number. Agar activated his overhead lights as the Jetta approached the intersection of Highway 36 and Palmer Avenue. At this time, Agar described the car's only occupant, the driver, as "a subject with dark hair and either a dark jacket or shirt on."
After initially slowing down as it approached a traffic jughandle, the Jetta made a "quick right [turn] and he accelerated south on Palmer Avenue." Agar then activated his siren (in addition to the overhead lights) and radioed headquarters that he was in pursuit. The Jetta increased speed to an estimated forty-five to fifty miles per hour*fn1 , and began to pull away from the pursing police car. Agar continued his pursuit until he reached Highway 35, where he lost sight of the Jetta. Agar searched the area unsuccessfully, and eventually reached the area where the Town and Country Diner is located on Highway 35 in Keyport; he then returned to Hazlet.
In response to Agar's radio transmissions, which included a description of the Jetta, Officer Kevin Geoghan positioned his police car at the intersection of Highway 35 and Fleetwood Drive, facing the direction where the Jetta was last seen. Geoghan activated the police vehicle's ally light. According to Geoghan, this enable him "to see inside the vehicles as they go by." He testified that he saw the Jetta drive by with the driver as its sole occupant. He did not pursue.
Officer Scott Randolph was positioned south of Geoghan's location, at the intersection of Highway 35 and Poole Avenue. He testified that he saw the Jetta drive through a red light. He pursued the Jetta until it drove through a second red light. He last saw the Jetta traveling north on Highway 35 through the intersection of Homdel Road.
At the same time these events were unfolding, Keyport Police Officers Sorber and Dixon were searching the side streets around Highway 35 in response to the Hazlet police's radio transmissions. As they reached the Town and Country Diner, they noticed a Jetta matching the description of the wanted vehicle parked in the restaurant's parking lot. After Agar and Geoghan arrived, the four officers "secured" the scene and began to investigate.
When Agar reached the Jetta, he immediately noticed that the hood of the car was "warm to the touch," and "the front seat was pushed all the way back and leaning back, reclined a little." This was significant, because, by this time, Agar was aware that the Jetta's registered owner was a man named Gerard Perez, described as five feet, four inches tall. Thus, the angle and position of the seat were inconsistent with Perez' height.
Agar then went inside the dinner. Based on information received from a waitress, Agar returned to the Jetta and seized a pack of "Camel Turkish Silver" cigarettes from the floor of the car, and a phone charger from the center dashboard. According to Agar, these items were significant, "[b]ecause another officer was on ...