On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictments Nos. 06-03-0438 and 05-12-1748.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 20, 2009
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Sabatino.
The sole issue raised in this appeal is whether the police unconstitutionally detained and searched defendant Darneil*fn1 L. Reeves in a street encounter, thereby uncovering a bag of crack cocaine and other incriminating evidence. Because we agree with the trial court that the detention and search were lawful, we sustain the denial of defendant's motion to suppress the seized evidence. We therefore affirm defendant's ensuing conviction of drug offenses.
These are the pertinent facts that emerged at the suppression hearing. In September 2005, Officer Joseph Prebish, of the Lakewood Township Police Department, was working with State Troopers Algor and Tully*fn2 in an undercover narcotics operation. The operation involved, among other things, a "warrant roundup" targeting high-drug areas in Lakewood.
At the time of the "roundup," Officer Prebish had been a police officer for about five years. He had worked undercover for three years with the Ocean County Strike Force and thereafter, with the street crimes unit of the Lakewood Detective Bureau. His training included narcotics "hand-to-hand" activities, gangs and gang intelligence, and narcotics intelligence.
During their three-week operation, Prebish, Algor, and Tully made several undercover drug buys. Prebish's main role was to identify narcotics sellers and some of the so-called "players" on the streets.
At around six o'clock in the afternoon of September 29, 2005, Prebish and the two undercover troopers were in an unmarked car traveling east on East Fourth Street. The street was known to Prebish as a high-crime area of Lakewood. The three officers observed defendant and D.G., a minor at the time, walking eastbound on that street. Prebish was familiar with both defendant and D.G. from previous investigations, including a prior incident in which defendant had resisted arrest. D.G. was a specific target of the sweep because he had an outstanding arrest warrant for selling drugs to an undercover officer.
Looking out from the passenger side of the unmarked car, Prebish saw defendant hand something to D.G. It appeared that D.G. then put the object in the front of his pants. At the time Prebish witnessed these actions, defendant and D.G. were about twenty to thirty feet away. The car was traveling at an estimated twenty to twenty-five miles an hour.
Although he had not seen money exchanged, Prebish believed he had just witnessed a narcotics transaction. Based on his knowledge and experience, Prebish testified that because drug dealers typically know that the police are "looking for a money exchange," a drug deal can be structured as a "three-person or four-person operation" in which a third party will be responsible for the transfer of the payment.
Prebish told Algor and Tully what he had just seen. He advised the troopers to act quickly before defendant and D.G. could flee on foot.
The unmarked car stopped and the three officers got out. The troopers arrested D.G. while Prebish questioned defendant. Defendant denied handing anything to D.G. Prebish was concerned that defendant might be armed, having heard that another police officer had previously found razor blades on defendant's person. Prebish asked defendant if he had any weapons on him, and then asked him to put his hands on the car.
Meanwhile, the troopers searched D.G.'s front waistband and found a piece of crack cocaine. After he was informed of the troopers' discovery, Prebish patted defendant down. He felt an object in the rear of defendant's pants that, based on his training and experience, he immediately recognized as a controlled dangerous substance ("CDS"). Prebish "shook the object out" so that it dropped out of defendant's pant leg onto the street. ...