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State v. Amelio

December 22, 2008


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division. Steven E. Braun, Chief Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (James F. Avigliano, Passaic County Prosecutor, attorney).


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

The issue in this appeal is whether a telephone call to a police dispatcher by a seventeen-year-old reporting that her father was drunk and driving provided a constitutional basis to stop defendant's vehicle.

The parties stipulated to the facts for the purpose of deciding defendant Paul Amelio's motion to suppress the evidence. On December 11, 2005, at approximately 12:30 a.m., Clifton Patrol Officers Peter A. Turano and Carmen Bermudez were dispatched to defendant's home on Patricia Place to investigate a domestic disturbance between defendant and his seventeen-year-old daughter. The daughter initially had called police to report a verbal dispute. While the officers were en route, dispatch advised that the daughter had called back stating that her father was drunk and leaving the home driving a black Oldsmobile. She also gave the vehicle's license plate number.

Officer Turano observed a vehicle matching that description turn onto Patricia Place. He pulled his marked patrol car behind defendant's Oldsmobile, which had stopped on the side of the road. After approximately five seconds, defendant drove away. The officers followed, activated their siren and lights, and stopped behind defendant's vehicle after he pulled into his driveway. Defendant was charged with driving while intoxicated and refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test.

The municipal court judge denied defendant's motion challenging the legality of the stop. Following a de novo review, the Law Division reversed, finding that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop defendant's vehicle. In an unpublished decision, the Appellate Division affirmed. The panel reasoned that there was no evidence that defendant operated his vehicle erratically, and it had no way of knowing what the term "drunk" meant to a seventeen-year-old immediately following a "verbal dispute" with her father.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification. 193 N.J. 587 (2007).

HELD: Based on the report to dispatch by defendant's seventeen-year-old daughter, who identified herself, reported that her father was driving drunk, described the vehicle, and exposed herself to criminal prosecution if her report was knowingly false, there was reasonable and articulable suspicion of an offense to support a constitutional motor vehicle stop by the police.

1. It is well established that the investigative stop of an automobile by police constitutes a seizure that implicates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. A lawful stop must be based on reasonable and articulable suspicion that an offense has been or is being committed. That standard requires some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.The officer must be able to point to specific facts which, taken together with reasonable inferences that the officer is entitled to draw in light of his experience, reasonably warrant the intrusion. (pp. 4-5)

2. An anonymous tip, standing alone, is rarely sufficient to establish reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. When the informer is an ordinary citizen, however, the report is not viewed with the same degree of suspicion that applies to a tip by a confidential or anonymous informant. There is an assumption grounded in common experience that an ordinary citizen is motivated by factors that are consistent with law enforcement goals, and courts assume that an ordinary citizen has sufficient veracity and require no further demonstration of reliability. (pp. 6-7)

3. In this case, the officers properly relied on the seventeen-year-old daughter's report that her father was drunk. This was not an anonymous tip. The daughter was a citizen who gave her name to the police. She was in the nature of a complainant, whose information could be taken at face value irrespective of other evidence concerning her reliability. Moreover, she exposed herself to criminal prosecution if her report to dispatch was knowingly false. (pp. 7-9)

4. The fact that the caller was seventeen and merely described the driver as "drunk" does not alter the result. The term "drunk" has a commonly understood meaning. The signs of drunkenness are matters of common knowledge and experience. In these fast-arising circumstances, there was no need to require a more precise description than the word "drunk" to describe a commonly understood condition. (pp. 9-10)

5. In summary, the police had a duty to investigate the report of a domestic disturbance. The daughter's second call to dispatch describing her father as drunk provided a sufficiently precise description of a commonly understood condition. The details of those reports by a known citizen gave the police reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop and investigate defendant's conduct. (p. 10)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings ...

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