On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Municipal Appeal No. 54-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 12, 2008
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Baxter.
Defendant Eduardo Lesmes appeals from his November 13, 2007 conviction at a trial de novo in which the Law Division found him guilty of failure to observe a traffic signal, N.J.S.A. 39:4-81. The municipal court judge imposed a fine of $126 and appropriate court costs. We reverse.
Hudson County sheriff's officer Bruce Miller was on routine patrol in Jersey City on November 26, 2006, at 8:55 p.m., when he observed a 2006 four-door black Chrysler, which was driving at an excessive rate of speed, run a red light. By the time Miller caught up with the Chrysler, the Chrysler was approaching another traffic light. Miller activated his overhead lights. He observed the vehicle as it "went around traffic on the sidewalk through two other red lights." The Chrysler proceeded at a high rate of speed over the Lincoln Highway bridge into Kearny. Miller was still unable to catch up to the Chrysler, but decided to give up the chase because the high-speed vehicle pursuit was becoming unreasonably dangerous.
Miller testified that he was unable to see the driver of the vehicle because the windows were tinted and it was dark outside. He was, however, able to write down the vehicle's license plate number, which "came back" to the DeFeo used car dealership on Communipaw Avenue in Jersey City. The next morning, Miller and his supervisor, Captain Conte, went to the dealership to investigate because they believed the car was likely stolen.
When they arrived at the dealership, Conte was in uniform and Miller was in plain clothes, but his official badge was suspended from a chain around his neck. Once they pulled into the parking lot of the dealership, to their surprise, the car was "sitting there" on the lot. Miller approached the general manager who "said the car was his." When Miller asked him whether he "had it last night," the manager answered "yes." At that point, Miller and Conte identified themselves as sheriff's officers and asked the man to step into his office at the used car lot. Once he did so, they gave him a Miranda warning,*fn1
handcuffed him and took him to headquarters where they questioned him further. Miller testified that once the Miranda warnings were administered, defendant said he had "no problem answering [Miller's] questions."
According to Miller's testimony, once they arrived at headquarters, defendant acknowledged that he was driving the car the previous night, but claimed "he didn't realize [Miller] was behind him or trying to stop him at any point." When Miller was asked whether defendant provided an explanation for why he was driving so erratically, Miller explained that defendant said he was "late getting home."
Defendant made an oral motion to the municipal court judge to suppress the statements he had allegedly made to Miller. The municipal court judge denied the motion for the following reasons: 1) defendant's admission that he was the driver of the car on the night in question was made at the car dealership while defendant was not in custody and therefore the admission was not made during the course of a custodial interrogation; and 2) defendant waived his right to object to such testimony by failing to file a pretrial motion seeking a Miranda hearing.
At the conclusion of Miller's testimony, defendant made a motion for a judgment of acquittal, which the municipal court denied. Defendant testified that when Miller and Conte, whom he knew, came to the dealership and began asking him questions, he told them that he was "not in the vehicle" and "not in the area on the previous night." He testified that he was at a party in "Newark or Harrison" at the time in question. He denied ever telling Miller that he had been driving the car and insisted that he had never apologized to Miller for driving erratically.
During his testimony, defendant acknowledged having told Miller that he did not realize Miller was behind him; however, shortly thereafter he insisted that he also told Miller that he was never in the area in question. At another point during cross-examination, defendant claimed that "someone else could have took the car." When the prosecutor said, "I thought you were at a party," defendant answered "[y]eah, I was at the party, but I left my car. . . . [T]hat's the only thing I can figure. Someone else took the key for my car."
The State recalled Miller on rebuttal. Miller testified that he gave defendant Miranda warnings both in defendant's own office and again when defendant was brought into headquarters. Miller also testified that at no time did defendant say that somebody else was driving the car on the night in question. He added that had defendant done so, "I would have tried to ascertain who was driving."
After considering closing arguments from both sides, the municipal court judge made the following findings: 1) defendant was properly given his Miranda warnings; 2) defendant's testimony that he told Officer Miller he "wasn't even in the area" was not credible; 3) "Officer Miller is a credible witness" and "has no reason to testify that defendant would apologize unless defendant did, in fact apologize, [and state] that he was in a hurry and was on his way home"; and 4) defendant's admission that he was the driver of the car and was speeding in order to get home constitutes "proof of driving" by defendant. Accordingly, the judge found the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt ...