January 17, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF J. B., A JUVENILE.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, No. FJ-07-4937-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 15, 2007
Before Judges Wefing and Lyons.
J.B. was adjudicated a delinquent for having committed an act which, if committed by an adult, would constitute third-degree arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1(b). He was sentenced to serve an eighteen-month term at the Training School for Boys in Jamesburg. J.B. has appealed. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
On June 7, 2005, J.B., then seventeen years of age, was an inmate at the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center, awaiting disposition on several charges that had been lodged against him. He was assigned to cell #33, a single-bed cell in Unit 3 on the second floor. The individual cells are searched each day at various times, but the individual inmates are not searched before they return to their cells for the evening lock-down, which occurs at 8:45 P.M. each evening. These cells open onto a common area that the juveniles may use during the day. The common area contains the only television that the juveniles may watch. They are not permitted to have individual television sets, radios, or CD players in their cells, which have no electrical service available. The juveniles are locked into their cells by the officers closing and locking the doors to the individual cells. Although the accommodations occupied by the juveniles are referred to as cells, they are more akin to individual rooms, separated by walls, not by bars. Each of the doors contains a window which permits a juvenile to observe the cell across the hall from him but not to observe the cell directly next to him.
On the evening of June 7, 2005, following lock-down, a fire broke out in the cell occupied by M.L. Officer Eduardo Martinez retrieved a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. M.L.'s cell was damaged, and he was not permitted to return to it; rather, he was placed in the common area. Shortly after that fire was extinguished, a second fire erupted in the cell next to M.L.'s, occupied by L.H. Again, Officer Martinez used the fire extinguisher to put out the fire. And again, L.H. was not returned to his cell, which was damaged in the fire. He joined M.L. in the common area. Shortly after this second fire was put out, a third fire broke out, this time in J.B.'s cell, which was located directly across from the cells of M.L. and L.H. Officer Martinez, together with a number of other officers, responded to this fire as he had to the others.
Officer Martinez testified that as he was working to extinguish this third fire, he heard another officer, in a shocked voice, ask J.B. why he had started a fire in his cell. Martinez testified that he heard J.B. respond that he had seen that M.L. and L.H. were wandering around the common area and he wanted to get out of his cell to join them.
On appeal, J.B. raises the following contentions:
POINT I THE JUVENILE'S STATEMENT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUPPRESSED BECAUSE THE STATE FAILED TO ADVISE HIM OF HIS MIRANDA RIGHTS DESPITE THE FACT THAT THE STATEMENT WAS GIVEN WHILE THE JUVENILE WAS IN CUSTODY AND PURSUANT TO QUESTIONING BY A CORRECTIONS OFFICER. U.S. CONST. AMENDS. V, XIV.
POINT II BECAUSE THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT THAT J.B. SET ANY FIRE, THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN DENYING J.B.'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL. (U.S. CONST. AMEND. XIV; N.J. CONST. ART. I, PARS. 1, 9, 10).
It is, of course, settled that the prosecution may not use against a defendant a statement made during the course of custodial interrogation "unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination." Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1612, 16 L.Ed. 2d 694, 706 (1966). The critical question is whether the statement at issue was elicited during custodial interrogation. We are satisfied that the fact that J.B. was in custody on other charges is not sufficient to transform the spontaneous exchange between the officer and J.B. into custodial interrogation.
The trial court, in its oral opinion denying J.B.'s motion to suppress his statement, characterized the officer's question as a "reflex response" to the excitement of the third fire of the evening. Having reviewed the transcript, we can perceive no reason to depart from that perspective. There was no attempt to elicit any further information nor to inquire into any details, such as what methodology J.B. employed to set the fire, how he had been able to obtain the material used to start the fire, or how he was able to get that material into his cell. If the officer was indeed interrogating J.B., he would not have stopped on hearing J.B.'s explanation for setting this fire.
Similarly, we reject J.B.'s contention that the trial court erred in denying his motion for acquittal under R. 3:18. While there was no testimony that anyone saw J.B. set this fire, there was strong circumstantial evidence of his involvement. J.B.'s cell was a single-bed cell, and there was no evidence that any other inmate had obtained access to it after lock-down, which had taken place shortly before the fire broke out. That evidence was more than sufficient to withstand defendant's motion.
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