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State v. Brown

October 16, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Indictment No. 05-03-0211.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 22, 2008

Before Judges Carchman, Sabatino and Simonelli.

After being waived from juvenile status by the Family Part and tried as an adult in the Criminal Part, defendant Trent J. Brown was found guilty by a jury of first-degree armed robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a); third-degree possession of a handgun without a permit, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b); fourth-degree possession of a firearm by a minor, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-6.1(b); fourth-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(4); and third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b). He was sentenced, after appropriate mergers, to twelve years of imprisonment on the armed robbery offense, plus two concurrent four-year terms on the weapon possession and hindering apprehension charges.

Defendant now appeals, contesting: (1) the waiver of his prosecution from the juvenile court, (2) the admission at trial of his confession to the police, (3) the admission of contraband evidence, and (4) the severity of his sentence. Because none of those arguments has merit, we affirm.


The charges against defendant stemmed from an attempt*fn1 to rob a man at gunpoint at an apartment complex in Somerset County on the evening of January 7, 2005. At the time, defendant was seventeen years old.*fn2 The State's proofs at trial established the following facts about the robbery and ensuing events pertinent to our analysis.

Around 6:00 p.m. on the evening of January 7, 2005, fifty-year-old Fred Shamary was visiting a friend at the Parkside Apartment Complex in Franklin Township. Shamary's white Mustang was parked in the complex's parking lot, near the rear door leading inside. Shamary's friend was trying to hang blinds or curtains in his windows, and Shamary told him he thought he had a Phillips head screwdriver in his car. Shamary then left the apartment and went back to his car, opened the trunk, and began looking for the screwdriver.

When he first arrived at his friend's apartment, Shamary noticed two men standing and talking in the area between the parking lot and the complex's rear door. Shamary recalled that the two men "were young guys," about seventeen or eighteen. One was taller than the other. As Shamary rummaged through his trunk looking for a screwdriver, one of the those men approached him from the driver's side. The man pointed a gun at Shamary, and commanded "give me your money, give me your money." Shamary replied that he did not have any money. The man then checked Shamary's pockets himself, found nothing, and walked away.

Shamary described his assailant with the gun as a black man wearing a camouflage jacket and "ski mask" over his face. He could not see the man's face because it was hidden by the mask. Shamary did note that it was the taller of the two men he saw earlier that had robbed him. The other man, the shorter one, stood by the front of the car while the encounter took place. Shamary did not get a good look at the shorter man, and could only recall that he wore "a black jacket." Afterwards, the two men walked away together across the parking lot, heading towards Minetta Road.

A bystander, James Sinkfield, was also visiting at the Parkside apartments that night. At around the same time as Shamary first arrived, Sinkfield noticed the same two men standing near the walkway leading to the complex's back door. Sinkfield observed that the two men, who he also perceived were black, looked about age "twenty," and that the taller one wore a camouflage jacket while the shorter one had on a "black team logo jacket." The two men also wore hats, but their faces were uncovered. After learning a short time later that Shamary had been robbed, Sinkfield went back outside and saw the same two men walking away across the parking lot. He then called the police.

The police arrived shortly thereafter, and spoke with Shamary and Sinkfield in the parking lot. The officers then knocked on the door of 172 Minetta Road, which was adjacent to the parking lot of the Parkside apartments. The Franklin Township police were well-acquainted with this house and its occupants, as it had been the site of past disturbances. Hopeton Brown, Jr. ("Hopeton Brown"),*fn3 who lived at the residence, answered the door. He was wearing a black jacket with team logos on it and a knit cap on his head, that appeared to be rolled up and had eye holes in it. After Hopeton Brown stepped outside, police officers searched him for weapons. He unsuccessfully attempted to flee the scene and was promptly detained. Malik Riley,*fn4 who also lived there, followed Hopeton Brown outside. After arguing with the officers, Riley also was detained. At the time, Riley was not wearing any jacket.

The police officers then asked Shamary and Sinkfield to look at the two men who had been apprehended. Patrolman Mark Reiner testified that both Shamary and Sinkfield positively identified Brown and Riley as the suspects, "to the best of their recollection."*fn5 Based on this information, police arrested both suspects.

After securing a search warrant, police officers searched the house. While that search was ongoing, several persons who had been inside when Brown and Riley were arrested came out to the street. Others were still inside the house, seated in the living room.

The police recovered three handguns tucked beneath a sofa cushion in the basement, another handgun in a second-floor bedroom, three bullets underneath a mattress in Riley's bedroom, several rounds of ammunition, and drugs and drug paraphernalia. They also found a total of four camouflaged jackets in various parts of the house. Hopeton Brown and Riley, meanwhile, had been taken to the police station for processing.

The next morning, Franklin Township Detectives Darrin Russo and Patrick Albani, who were in charge of investigating the robbery, were summoned to the police station. Earlier that morning, defendant had arrived at the police station alone, claiming he had information about the robbery. Upon meeting Detective Albani in the lobby, defendant told him, "you have the wrong guy." He then informed Albani, "I was the guy who . . . you should have arrested instead of [Malik] Riley." Defendant allegedly made a similar statement to Detective Russo upon meeting him.

After speaking with defendant for a few moments, Detectives Albani and Russo discovered that he was a minor. They told defendant that he needed a parent or guardian present before they could speak further with him. Defendant then gave the detectives the name and address of his grandfather, Ernest Brown, with whom he resided and who had been his guardian since he was an infant.*fn6 The police called Ernest Brown and requested that he come down to the station. According to Detective Albani, he did not speak to defendant again until the grandfather arrived.

Upon Ernest Brown's arrival at the police station, Detective Albani reviewed the Miranda*fn7 form with him and defendant. Both grandfather and grandson signed the form, documenting that defendant was waiving his right to remain silent.*fn8

After signing the Miranda waiver form, defendant proceeded to give a detailed statement to Detective Albani. Defendant stated that he was the person who was with Hopeton Brown near the Parkside apartments. He further admitted that Hopeton Brown supplied him with the gun that had been wielded at Shamary.

At first, Detective Albani did not believe defendant, telling him that he thought defendant was merely covering up for Riley. However, defendant seemed to know many details of the robbery such as who held the gun, how much money was taken, and where the gun was stashed in the house. Given these details, Detective Albani ultimately concluded that defendant was being truthful about his culpability.

Detective Russo also believed, initially, that Riley was the perpetrator, and that defendant had falsely confessed to protect Riley. While they were at the police station, Detective Russo told defendant and his grandfather that he thought defendant was making up a story. However, Detective Russo likewise changed his mind, after hearing defendant relate details of the incident that could not be known by him unless he actually had been involved.

In this regard, Detective Russo testified that he had tried to trick defendant into admitting that he was lying. He did so by purposely conveying to defendant fabricated details of the incident, such as who pointed the gun at Shamary. Nevertheless, defendant corrected Russo and gave a version of events that was consistent with what Shamary had told the police. This corroboration persuaded Detective Russo that defendant was, in fact, the person who had committed the robbery along with Hopeton Brown.

After his interview, defendant agreed to give a taped statement to police about the incident. In that recorded statement, which was admitted and played for the jury at trial, defendant confirmed that he had read over the Miranda form, agreed to waive his rights, and wished to speak to police officers about the incident. Defendant then stated on the recording:

Me and Hop[e]ton Brown were standing on Parkside and we decided that we needed some money so we saw a man who we thought to have money so we walked over to his car, he came back outside the building, Smurf [Hopeton Brown] handed me the gun, and I put it to his arm and chest and [told] him to gimme the money, patted him down, he didn't have no money so we just proceeded to go back into the house.

Defendant further recounted that at the time of the incident he was wearing a camouflaged army jacket, a Los Angeles Clippers jersey, a black hat, black face mask, and jeans. He described Hopeton Brown's attire as consisting of a "[b]lack face mask, black hat, some jeans, black sneakers and a black hoody."

Defendant then described what happened after he got back to 172 Minetta Road:

I went to [the] house in the basement and I sat there and I placed the gun under the, under the couch. I came back upstairs I saw Smurf [Hopeton Brown] and I saw [Malik] handcuffed to the car, but then . . . and then I left through the back door on my bike and I went down the street and I put my face mask in a sewer, then I went to my friend['s] house.

According to his statement, defendant rode his bicycle to his friend Ali Luckey's house and spent the night there. He told Luckey what he had done and also told him that he intended to turn himself in to the police. Defendant stated that he knew Riley personally, that he and Riley were a similar height and weight, and that Riley also owned a camouflaged jacket.

Based on the information defendant provided in his statement, the police searched the sewer drains on Fuller Street, where defendant claimed he threw his face mask. No mask was recovered. Given that a flood the night before had four feet of water in the drains, Detective Albani terminated the search because he did not think it was possible that anything would be recovered.

While his colleagues were searching the sewer, Detective Russo went to Luckey's house to interview him about the incident. Luckey confirmed in that interview that defendant had spent the night there and had told him about the robbery. Upon learning this, Detective Albani was, in his words, "fully convinced" that defendant had told him the truth in confessing to the attempted robbery. Riley was ...

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