On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FJ-13-0210-07A.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 13, 2008
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Sabatino.
C.J. appeals his juvenile adjudication for possessing fifty grams or less of marijuana, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(4). The marijuana was seized by police from the ashtray of C.J.'s automobile after a routine motor vehicle stop. We reverse the Family Part's denial of C.J.'s motion to suppress the contraband, and the court's ensuing adjudication of guilt.
On the morning of May 5, 2006, C.J., who was then age seventeen, was driving his car on Route 9 in Howell Township. He was with two adult passengers, Harry Ganthier seated in the front, and Jordon Tuchol seated in the rear. C.J. was driving to a local fast-food restaurant, where they were going to eat before taking Ganthier to a court appearance in Freehold.*fn1 C.J. made a lawful u-turn from Route 9 North onto Route 9 South, in the direction of the restaurant.
At this same time, a local patrolman on routine traffic duty, Officer Nancy Carroll, observed C.J.'s vehicle. She noticed that the car had a red "failed inspection" sticker, potentially indicating that the vehicle was not authorized to be on the road. According to her testimony, Officer Carroll also could see that both the driver and the front seat passenger were not wearing seatbelts. She moved her squad car behind C.J.'s vehicle and activated her lights and siren. C.J. immediately pulled over to the shoulder.
At Officer Carroll's request, C.J. produced his driver's license, registration and insurance card. The officer went back to her squad car and ran various computerized checks. The checks indicated that there was a bench warrant for C.J. issued by the Howell Municipal Court, apparently for his failure to appear at an unspecified court appearance. The checks also disclosed that C.J. had previously been arrested on a drug matter, although the record contains no indication that this prior arrest led to an adjudication. The record also does not specify the kind of drugs involved or whether C.J. had been considered a distributor or a simple possessor. The computer checks also showed an unquantified number of police "stops" of C.J. in the past, again without indicia of any adjudications.*fn2
The front seat passenger also had a reported prior drug arrest.
The officer's computer searches did show that C.J.'s vehicle was lawfully within the statutory forty-five-day period*fn3 to cure a failed inspection, N.J.S.A. 39:8-9. The officer therefore recognized that the red sticker had been properly displayed, and there was no basis to charge C.J. for an inspection violation.
After completing the computer checks, about forty-five minutes after first pulling C.J. over, Officer Carroll radioed for a K-9 unit to come to the scene with a drug-sniffing dog. She testified that she had made that request because C.J. "was going southbound [away from Freehold], [and] because of his prior criminal history." She also mentioned briefly in her testimony that she was familiar with C.J. by name from squad briefings at the police department, although she did not explain what had been said about C.J. in those briefings.
About five to ten minutes later, Officer Michael Pavlick of the K-9 unit arrived. The officers asked C.J. and his two passengers to get out of the car. They complied. The drug-sniffing dog then was brought to the driver's side of the vehicle, where the window was open. The dog jumped, displaying a reaction to the presence of potential contraband inside. Officer Pavlick then let the dog into the car interior. It began sniffing and scratching around the ashtray in the center console.
Officer Pavlick removed the dog from the car and put it back on a leash. He then went inside the car himself, opened the ashtray, and found several marijuana "roaches" inside. Subsequent laboratory testing confirmed that the ...