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State v. Ramirez


June 27, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Indictment No. 05-10-1850.

Per curiam.


Submitted June 3, 2008

Before Judges Skillman and Winkelstein.

Defendant was indicted for first-degree robbery, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; second-degree kidnapping, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(b); and impersonating a law enforcement officer, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:28-8(b).

Defendant made a motion to suppress certain evidence against him, specifically an inculpatory statement made to New Jersey law enforcement officers following his arrest in Texas. The trial court conducted a two-day evidentiary hearing following which it issued a lengthy written opinion denying defendant's motion.

Defendant then entered into a plea agreement under which he agreed to plead guilty to the armed robbery and impersonating a law enforcement officer charges and the State agreed to dismiss the kidnapping charge and recommend that defendant be sentenced to an aggregate term not to exceed six years. The trial court sentenced defendant in accordance with the plea agreement to a six-year term of imprisonment for armed robbery, subject to the 85% period of parole ineligibility mandated by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and a concurrent fifteen-month term for impersonating a law enforcement officer.

On appeal, defendant's only argument is that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. We reject this argument and affirm defendant's conviction and sentence.

The armed robbery to which defendant pled guilty was committed on January 19, 2005 at R.K. Fragrances, Inc., a wholesale distributor of colognes and perfumes located in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Defendant and his confederate gained entry to the company's warehouse by producing a gold shield and business card that purported to identify one of them as a New York City police officer.

Approximately two months later, on March 10, 2005, Sergeant Tony Viator of the Jefferson County Police Department in Beaumont, Texas, observed defendant changing lanes without using directional signals while driving a car with Pennsylvania license plates. Consequently, Sergeant Viator activated his overhead lights and stopped defendant. As Viator approached defendant's car, he observed defendant roll down all four windows. Viator considered this to be suspicious because narcotics carriers often roll down all of their windows in order to air out the vehicle so an officer will not smell drugs. Viator's suspicions regarding defendant's possible involvement in transporting drugs were increased by his observations of the car's dashboard, which had "several screws that had been tooled or recently taken out of the dash" and molding that "didn't match up[.]"

When Sergeant Viator asked defendant for his driver's license, he produced what appeared to be an Ontario, Canada, driver's license under the name Ernesto Ramos. A check of this license came back as "no record," which meant that there was no record of such a license being issued.

Defendant also produced two traffic summons, one issued in Houston, Texas, on March 1st and the other issued in Virginia on March 10. Both summons indicated that defendant resided in an apartment complex in Houston.

In response to Sergeant Viator's inquiry as to where he was coming from, defendant at first indicated he was coming from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he had been for the last two weeks. However, this answer seemed to conflict with the Houston and Virginia traffic citations.

Defendant also produced an insurance card for the car, which was under the name of Arieal Ferreyna of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he said that a male friend had lent him the car, which he was considering buying.

After defendant gave these conflicting answers to Sergeant Viator's questions and produced suspicious credentials, Viator accused him of being a "liar." Viator also told defendant that he knew he was carrying drugs in a hidden compartment of the car. At that point, defendant stated: "You want to search the car? Go search the car, go check the car[.]" At that point, Viator said okay and patted defendant down for weapons. Viator then conducted a search of the car, which did not reveal narcotics or other evidence.

At this point, Sergeant Viator said to defendant, "I know you're lying to me, I know this isn't who you are . . . why don't you just tell me and we'll save everybody a lot of trouble." Defendant then gave Viator another name and date of birth and said that he had a California driver's license. Defendant also gave a California driver's license number, but Viator immediately knew it was "bogus" because California licenses begin with the first letter of the person's last name, and the first letter of the license defendant gave did not match the first letter of the new last name defendant provided. Viator checked the license number anyway, and there was no record of it.

Sergeant Viator then checked defendant's wallet in an effort to determine his true identity. Viator found a business card for "Salvatore LaCova, Detective New York City PD" in the wallet. Defendant said he was an informant for Detective LaCova and encouraged Viator to call LaCova. Viator placed a telephone call to LaCova from the side of the road, who told him defendant was a suspect in a New Jersey robbery and that he would contact New Jersey police officers to let them know Viator had stopped defendant.

Viator placed defendant in custody and transported him to a local office of the INS, which informed Viator that defndant's true name was Ramirez and that he was an illegal alien. Viator then transferred custody of defendant to the INS.

On March 11, 2005, James McMorrow, a detective with the Special Investigations Squad of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office contacted Sergeant Viator about defendant. During this conversation, Viator relayed the details of the March 10, 2005 traffic stop to Detective McMorrow.

On March 15, 2005, Detective McMorrow secured an arrest warrant for defendant and flew to Texas with another investigator for the purpose of interviewing him. On March 16, 2005, Detective McMorrow and the other investigator went to the INS detention facility.

After about an hour of questioning, defendant implicated himself in the robbery. After another hour, defendant recorded a statement admitting his involvement in the robbery.

On appeal, defendant does not question the validity of the stop of his car for a motor vehicle violation. Defendant also does not present any argument regarding the interrogation by Detective McMorrow that resulted in his inculpatory statements. Defendant's argument is directed solely at the validity of his detention following the stop of his car. Moreover, as to this issue, defendant states that "[he] is constrained to agree that his motion would not succeed under Texas law." However, defendant argues that the validity of that detention must be judged under New Jersey law, and that under New Jersey law the detention was illegal.

We conclude, substantially for the reasons set forth in the trial court's written opinion, that defendant's detention by police officers in Jefferson County, Texas, who at the time had had no contact with New Jersey law enforcement officers, was not governed by New Jersey law, and that defendant's detention was valid under Texas law and the United States Constitution.

We also note that if the stop of defendant's car had occurred in New Jersey, defendant's submission to the officer making the stop of what appeared to be a fraudulent Ontario, Canada, driver's license would have established the probable cause required to arrest defendant for a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:21-2.1(c). Moreover, following defendant's arrest for this offense, his wallet could have been searched incident to the arrest to determine his true identity. See State v. Paturzzio, 292 N.J. Super. 542, 550 (App. Div. 1996).



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