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State v. Pelc

December 9, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Municipal Appeal No. 5832.

Per curiam.


Argued November 18, 2008

Before Judges Skillman and Grall.

Defendant Stanley Pelc was charged in the Union County Municipal Court with failure to maintain lamps, N.J.S.A. 39:3-66, careless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, and driving while intoxicated, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. After the court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, defendant pled guilty to driving while intoxicated and the State dismissed the other charges. This is defendant's first conviction for driving while under the influence, and the municipal court judge imposed the maximum license suspension, one year, the maximum fine, $500, and other statutorily mandated penalties for those offenses. On defendant's appeal to the Law Division, the denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed, defendant's license suspension was reduced to a period of eight months and his fine was reduced to $300.

At eleven o'clock p.m. on September 16, 2006, State Trooper Kevin Coyle was patrolling on Route 78. He was traveling east in the left lane about three to four car lengths behind the car defendant was driving. Upon observing that the car's left tail light and license-plate light were not illuminated, Trooper Coyle used his troop car's overhead lights to signal the driver to stop. Defendant reduced his speed to a very slow rate and moved his car to the right lane. Trooper Coyle used his vehicle's public address system to direct defendant to pull onto the shoulder of the highway in order to eliminate the hazard created by the position of defendant's car.

Trooper Coyle spoke to defendant, asked him to perform field-sobriety tests, placed him under arrest and called a flatbed tow truck. The troop car is equipped with video and audio recording equipment that was operating from the time Trooper Coyle turned on the overhead lights until defendant's car was secured on the tow truck. A breathalyzer test administered thereafter disclosed an alcohol level of .15 percent.

Trooper Coyle testified at the suppression hearing, and the video-audio recording was played. The trooper described his observations of the tail light and license-plate light, which were not operating, and the brake lights, which were. He acknowledged that the video demonstrates that lights on both sides of the rear of defendant's car flash when the car's remote locking device is employed. He also admitted that he could not tell whether the tail light and license-plate light were working by viewing the video and agreed that all of the lights appeared to be illuminated when the car was driven onto the flatbed. Because the tail light and license-plate light were not working when he asked defendant to stop his car, Trooper Coyle concluded that the appearance of the lights on the video was attributable to the flood lights on the troop car, which were shining on the rear of defendant's car as it moved up the ramp and onto the flatbed.

The municipal court judge found Trooper Coyle's testimony credible, and based her finding of reasonable suspicion justifying the stop on that testimony. Explaining that "the flood lights on the Trooper's vehicle were illuminated such that you could not distinguish whether or not it was a tail light," the judge concluded "that the videotape does not address the issue of the tail lights." With respect to the license-plate light, the judge noted that she saw "a complete illumination of the rear license plate with the . . . Trooper's car flood lights on the license plate."

On de novo review in the Law Division, the trial court also viewed the video. That court concluded that the video did not "add or subtract anything." Accordingly, on the basis of Trooper Coyle's "unequivocally and clearly stated" description of the inoperable tail light and license-plate light, the court concluded that the officer had adequate cause to stop defendant's vehicle based on his reasonable suspicion that the lights were not operational.

"'[A] police officer is justified in stopping a motor vehicle when he has an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle offense.'" State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470 (1999) (quoting State v. Smith, 306 N.J. Super. 370, 380 (App. Div. 1997)). The State must show that the officer's suspicion is objectively reasonable. See State v. Pitcher, 379 N.J. Super. 308, 315-16 (App. Div. 2005), certif. denied, 186 N.J. 242 (2006).

After review of the record, including the video recording, we conclude that there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to permit a determination that this motor vehicle stop was based on an objectively reasonable suspicion of a motor vehicle violation. Due to the glare from lights shining on and reflected back from the rear of defendant's car, and the absence of any evidence about the manner in which the various lights operate, the video does not demonstrate that the denial of this motion to suppress is based on factual findings that are clearly mistaken. Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 471. Accordingly, we affirm the denial of the motion to suppress.

Defendant also argues that the eight-month license suspension is an excessive sentence. The argument lacks sufficient merit to warrant discussion beyond the brief comments that follow. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).

This court's authority to disturb a sentence imposed for a motor vehicle offense that is within the permissible range is limited to cases in ...

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