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State v. Patterson


November 18, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment No. 06-12-2795.

Per curiam.


Submitted August 12, 2008

Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Baxter.

Defendant, Richard Patterson, appeals his conviction for one count of third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). We affirm.

After the motion judge denied defendant's motion to suppress evidence seized from his vehicle, defendant pled guilty to the possession offense as part of a negotiated plea agreement. In exchange, two related disorderly persons' offenses were dismissed. Defendant received a probationary sentence.

On appeal, defendant claims that the evidence seized from his motor vehicle and from his person should have been suppressed because the seizure was the product of an illegal stop and warrantless search. We disagree.

According to the evidence presented during the suppression hearing, on September 27, 2006, at approximately 2:00 a.m., police received a 9-1-1 call from a female motorist, traveling in a red Jeep Cherokee, who claimed that a man driving a white Ford Explorer was chasing her in the area of the Freehold Racetrack. The caller identified herself and reported that she knew the man who was following her. She also reported that she knew the man owned a gun and that the gun was in the man's vehicle.

Officer Eduardo Santana, a four-and-one-half-year veteran of the Freehold Borough Police Department, was on routine patrol in the area of the Freehold Racetrack when he received the dispatch. Shortly after receiving the dispatch, he observed a red Jeep Cherokee speed by, followed by a white Ford Explorer that was traveling too close to the Jeep Cherokee. Based upon the report that he had received, he pursued the Explorer with overhead lights for about one-quarter mile before the driver pulled over.

Once the driver, later identified as defendant, stopped his vehicle, he immediately jumped out of the car and charged towards Officer Santana, who ordered defendant to return to his vehicle. Defendant complied but again exited the vehicle and approached the officer, this time leaving the door open. Defendant appeared to be in a highly agitated state and repeatedly ignored Officer Santana's instruction to keep his hands outside of his pants pockets.

Another officer, John Reif, arrived at this point and escorted defendant from the roadway to the sidewalk. As Officer Reif was removing defendant to the sidewalk, Officer Santana was able to see, through the open car door, what he believed to be a crack pipe in the car's center-console cup holder. He entered the vehicle to remove the pipe and, in doing so, he observed "three rocks" of suspected CDS in the same center-console cup holder. Based upon his training and experience, he believed the substance to be crack cocaine.

While Officer Santana was recovering the suspected cocaine from the center-console cup holder, defendant was at the rear of his vehicle where Officer Reif was unable to get defendant to stop placing his hands in his pants pocket. The last time defendant reached in his pocket he told Officer Reif that he wanted a mint. He removed a dollar bill. Based upon Officer Reif's training and experience, he was aware that controlled dangerous substances are commonly concealed in currency. He seized the dollar bill from defendant and, once he unfolded it, discovered what he suspected was powdered cocaine. Officer Reif then immediately placed defendant under arrest.

Defendant contends that the information from the female caller was not sufficiently corroborated prior to the stop. Specifically, the caller never advised the dispatcher that she had actually seen a gun, failed to explain why she believed defendant was in possession of a gun, and provided no description of the weapon.

The "[r]easonable suspicion necessary to justify an investigatory stop is a lower standard than the probable cause necessary to sustain an arrest." State v. Stovall, 170 N.J. 346, 356 (2002). The standard requires "'some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.'" State v. Nishina, 175 N.J. 502, 511 (2003) (quoting United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S.Ct. 1581, 1585, 104 L.Ed. 2d 1, 10 (1989)). The test is "highly fact sensitive and, therefore, not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules." Ibid. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Reasonable suspicion has been described as "considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence." United States v. Sokolow, supra, 490 U.S. at 7, 109 S.Ct. at 1585, 104 L.Ed. 2d at 10 (1989). "Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause not only in the sense that [it] can be established with information that is different in quality or content... but also in the sense that [it] can arise from information that is less reliable...." Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330, 110 S.Ct. 2412, 2416, 110 L.Ed. 2d 301, 309 (1990). Like probable cause, there are no set rules for what constitutes reasonable suspicion. Courts are to evaluate the "'totality of the circumstances'" in making a determination of reasonable suspicion. Sokolow, supra, 490 U.S. at 8, 109 S.Ct. at 1585, 104 L.Ed. 2d at 10 (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct. 690, 695, 66 L.Ed. 621, 629 (1981)).

Here, defendant focuses upon the absence of corroborating facts to support the caller's allegations that defendant possessed a gun in his vehicle, rather than the additional factual information provided by the 9-1-1 caller that Officer Santana corroborated by his personal observations. He observed two vehicles meeting the description and approximate location provided by the caller. The two vehicles were speeding, with the white Ford Explorer tailgating the red Jeep Cherokee occupied by the 9-1-1 caller.

Under the totality of the circumstances, these corroborated facts from a 9-1-1 caller, who had identified herself, justified the stop for further investigation,*fn1 although the officer had not corroborated other information provided by the 9-1-1 caller. See State v. Gollotta, 178 N.J. 205, 214 (2003) (adopting the formulation considered by other courts that the 9-1-1 caller "must provide a sufficient quantity of information, such as an adequate description of the vehicle, its location and bearing, or similar innocent details, so that the officer, and the court, may be certain that the vehicle stopped is the same as the one identified by the caller"); see also United States v. Wheat, 278 F. 3d 722, 731 (8th Cir. 2001). Once the stop occurred, Officer Santana properly ordered defendant to exit his vehicle and defendant was obliged to comply. When defendant exited the vehicle the second time and left the driver's side door open, he readily exposed the suspected crack pipe to Officer Santana's plain view. This justified the seizure of the paraphernalia and Officer Santana's inadvertent discovery of the suspected cocaine. State v. Smith, 134 N.J. 599, 610 (1994) (an officer may order the driver out of a lawfully stopped vehicle for personal safety and any plain view observations made at that time are from a permissible vantage point). Likewise, Officer Reif, based upon his training and experience, was equally justified in seizing the dollar bill from defendant before defendant unfolded the dollar bill to ostensibly have a mint. State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 237 (1983) (adopting the overall standard of reasonableness with respect to a police officer's experience and knowledge in drug trafficking).


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