May 15, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
TIMOTHY MEADOWS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, A-25-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 5, 2008
Before Judges Lintner and Graves.
Defendant, Timothy Meadows, was charged in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, with driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50; reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97; and failure to exhibit on request, license, registration, and insurance information, N.J.S.A. 39:3-29. Defendant filed a motion to suppress, asserting the stop was improper. After a hearing, the municipal court judge denied the motion. Defendant then entered a guilty plea to DWI, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The reckless driving and document offenses were dismissed. Defendant's driving privileges were suspended for seven months and statutory penalties and costs were imposed totaling $664. The license suspension was stayed pending appeal.
On August 17, 2007, Judge Marshall conducted a trial de novo, during which he heard argument of counsel, and was provided with a DVD video taken by the arresting officer.*fn1 On August 27, 2007, after viewing the DVD, Judge Marshall issued a letter opinion finding the stop "constitutionally permissible." On appeal, defendant raises the following points:
I. THE COURT IMPROPERLY RELIED UPON THE "COMMUNITY CARE TAKING FUNCTION" OF AN OFFICER TO CONDUCT A MOTOR VEHICLE STOP BASED ON ARTICULABLE SUSPICION THAT ANY CRIMINAL ACTIVITY WAS AFOOT.
II. IN ORDER FOR AN OFFICER TO CONDUCT A MOTOR VEHICLE STOP THE OFFICER IS REQUIRED TO HAVE AN ARTICULABLE AND REASONABLE SUSPICION THAT THERE HAS BEEN A MOTOR VEHICLE INFRACTION.
A. THE OFFICER MUST OBJECTIVELY POSSESS AN ARTICULABLE SUSPICION THAT MEADOWS HAD COMMITTED A MOTOR VEHICLE OFFENSE AND AS A RESULT HE WAS JUSTIFIED TO CONDUCT A MOTOR VEHICLE STOP.
B. NO MOTOR VEHICLE VIOLATIONS TOOK PLACE IN THIS MATTER TO ESTABLISH ANY ARTICULABLE SUSPICION ALLOWING THE OFFICER IN THIS CASE TO CONDUCT A MOTOR VEHICLE STOP OF THE DEFENDANT.
We reject defendant's contentions and affirm.
The essential facts that gave rise to the stop are as follows. On January 30, 1998, at approximately 2:19 a.m., Police Officer James Reilly, while working the "DWI patrol shift," observed defendant operating his vehicle in the opposite direction on Williamstown Road. After observing what he described as a "wide left turn" from Williamstown Road onto Coles Mill Road, Reilly proceeded to follow defendant. As he followed defendant on Coles Mill Road, Reilly saw defendant's vehicle ride on the center line and go back to the middle of the roadway on two occasions. He also observed defendant's right blinker light come on while defendant was negotiating a bend in the road at which time defendant's vehicle momentarily crossed the center line of the roadway into the opposite lane. Reilly turned on his emergency lights to effect a stop. Defendant was slow to pull over.
Concluding that the evidence in the record was sufficient to establish a reasonable and articulable suspicion to effectuate the stop, Judge Marshall made the following observations:
The [c]court finds that the recording of the defendant driving his SUV that evening showed that, after making a left turn onto Coles Mill Road, in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, his vehicle was weaving within the lane of travel; was riding with its turn signal on at a point in the road where there was no right turn, only a bend in the road; and was at least on the center line and the right line of the roadway on a couple of occasions and may also have been over those lines on a couple of occasions. The officer testified that the defendant made a wide turn onto Coles Mill Road, but from the angle of the camera, the [c]court saw the turn, but was unable to determine if that description of the turn was accurate.
Relying on State v. Goetaski, 209 N.J. Super. 362 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 104 N.J. 458 (1986), Judge Marshall rejected defendant's assertion that Reilly's observations demonstrated that the stop was based on a mere "hunch" rather than a reasonable articulable suspicion. See id. at 366 ("[T]he facts were unusual enough for the time and place to warrant the closer scrutiny of a momentary investigative stop and inquiry."). The judge concluded:
While it is noted that the defendant may not have committed a violation in weaving within his lane or when he turned on his turn signal, the [c]court is satisfied from its view that the defendant did at least ride on the center line and possibly over it, which would have been a violation. In any event, this stop was constitutionally permissible under the community caretaking function since the driving provided a reasonably articulable suspicion that the defendant was driving under the influence.
We agree with Judge Marshall's assessment. In State v. Cryan, 320 N.J. Super. 325, 331 (App. Div. 1999), we held that the fact that a driver remained stationary at a light, waiting five seconds before proceeding very slowly to make a left-hand turn, was not sufficient to justify a stop based upon the "community caretaking function." See also Goetaski, supra, 209 N.J. Super. at 365-66; Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2528, 37 L.Ed. 2d 706, 714-15 (1973). In Cryan, supra, 320 N.J. Super. at 331, we also rejected the State's contention that the single incident, when objectively viewed, justified an inference creating a reasonable articulable suspicion that the motorist was violating the law by driving while intoxicated. See State v. Spencer, 221 N.J. Super. 265, 267-68 (App. Div. 1987).
The facts facing us are more akin to those in State v. Martinez, 260 N.J. Super. 75 (App. Div. 1992), where the motorist was observed traveling at less than ten miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone at 4:00 a.m. In Martinez, we took notice that Martinez's driving was "abnormal" and held that it implicated the "community caretaking function" because there existed a reasonable concern that something might be wrong with the car or the operator. Id. at 78. We also recognized that such driving might create a hazard for others on the roadway. Ibid.; see also State v. Washington, 296 N.J. Super. 569, 572 (App. Div. 1997) (police officer had reasonable objective basis to stop the defendant's vehicle, which was being operated at thirty-six miles per hour in a forty-five mile per hour business zone and weaving within its lane of travel at 12:20 a.m.).
The erratic driving here raises the same concerns as those expressed in Martinez and Washington. Whether based upon the "community caretaking function" expected of an alert police officer or the right to inquire, established by a reasonably founded suspicion that the driver's ability to drive was compromised, the stop here, when balanced against the minimal intrusion involved in a simple inquiry stop, passes constitutional muster. Martinez, supra, 260 N.J. Super. at 78.