March 31, 2009
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
BRENDAN STEPHAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 07-028.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 5, 2009
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Sabatino.
Defendant Brendan Stephan appeals the Law Division's order of February 27, 2008, sustaining his conviction in the Chester Township municipal court for possessing under fifty grams of marijuana, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(4), and driving while intoxicated, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. We affirm.
The facts may be simply stated. At about 11:50 p.m., on May 2, 2007, Police Officer Jeffrey M. Kalafut of the Mount Olive Township Police Department observed defendant, accompanied by a passenger, driving a Porsche sedan. Officer Kalafut noticed that one of the Porsche's taillights was significantly brighter than the other taillight. The officer followed the Porsche for a short distance, during which time the car circled most of the block and drove into the back entrance of a commercial parking lot. The officer then stopped defendant.
Upon approaching the Porsche, Officer Kalafut asked defendant for his driver's license, vehicle registration, and insurance card. When defendant complied, the officer noticed that the registration was expired. He also observed that defendant had "bloodshot" eyes, that the vehicle had the odor of "burnt" marijuana, and that defendant was "extremely nervous."
After further inquiry, defendant informed Officer Kalafut that he had been at the Mt. Olive Bar and Grille, where he had consumed a "beer and a shot." Defendant also admitted to "smoking one joint" and that he was aware that one of the Porsche's taillights was an incorrect wattage. In light of defendant's admissions regarding drug and alcohol use, Officer Kalafut placed him under arrest.
Shortly thereafter, two other patrolmen responded to the scene as backup. Once they arrived, Officer Kalafut searched the interior of defendant's vehicle. Inside the door compartment to the driver's side door, he found a glass pipe, which he suspected contained the remnants of burnt marijuana. Officer Kalafut also discovered a glass jar containing suspected marijuana under the driver's seat.
Officer Kalafut issued summonses to defendant for the aforementioned violations of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(4) and N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. He also charged defendant with violations of N.J.S.A. 39:3-29 (failure to present a valid registration); N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 (failure to maintain lamps); N.J.S.A. 39:4-49.1 (possession of CDS in a motor vehicle); N.J.S.A. 39:4-96 (reckless driving); N.J.S.A. 2C:36-2 (possession of drug paraphernalia); and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(b) (being under the influence of CDS). Defendant's father, the owner of the Porsche, subsequently acknowledged that one of the two taillight bulbs was the wrong wattage and that the bulbs had been installed by his car dealer.
Defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized during the course of the motor vehicle stop. After a suppression hearing at which Officer Kalafut, defendant, and defendant's father testified, the municipal judge ruled that the traffic stop was constitutional and denied the motion to suppress.
Defendant then entered into a conditional guilty plea to the violations of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(4) and N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. The remainder of the charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement with the State. The court entered appropriate fines and sanctions, including a seven-month suspension of defendant's drivers license.
As permitted by the terms of his plea bargain, defendant appealed his convictions, de novo, to the Law Division. Following oral argument, the Law Division judge sustained the denial of the motion to suppress. The judge determined that Officer Kalafut had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop the Porsche, given the irregularity in its rear lights. Additionally, the judge found, as a separate and independent justification, that Officer Kalafut's actions were authorized under the community caretaking doctrine.
On appeal, defendant raises the following points:
THE COMMUNITY CARETAKING FUNCTION DOES NOT JUSTIFY A MOTOR VEHICLE STOP BASED ON THE FACT THAT THE VEHICLE CONTAINS TWO OCCUPANTS AND IS PROCEEDING AROUND THE BLOCK
A SLIGHT DIFFERENCE IN WATTAGE OF A VEHICLE'S TAILLIGHTS DOES NOT VIOLATE [N.J.S.A.] 39:3-66
THE COMMUNITY CARETAKING FUNCTION DOES NOT APPLY TO (1) TWO OCCUPANTS IN A VEHICLE; (2)
A FIVE WATT DIFFERENCE IN TAILLIGHT ILLUMINATIONS; OR (3) THE FOLLOWING OF A VEHICLE BECAUSE OF THE ROUTE DRIVEN Defendant contends that the pertinent statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-66, only requires that taillights be kept in "good working order," and that the difference in illumination in the Porsche's taillight bulbs did not transgress that provision. He also challenges the court's application of the community caretaking doctrine to this situation.*fn1 Defendant's sentence has been stayed pending appeal.
We are satisfied that this traffic stop in this case was constitutionally valid. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1401, 59 L.Ed. 2d 660, 673 (1979) (recognizing the constitutional propriety of warrantless traffic stops if based upon reasonable and articulable police suspicions of illegality); State v. Hickman, 335 N.J. Super. 623, 633-35 (App. Div. 2000) (same). The difference in illumination of the Porsche's two rear lights presented a reasonable basis for Officer Kalafut to investigate a possible ongoing violation of the statute requiring taillights to be in good working order, N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. We do not read that statute as narrowly as defendant does. The fact that both rear bulbs were emitting some amount of light does not mean that they were in "good working order." The record indicates that one of the two bulbs was emitting twice the illumination of the other bulb, a situation that could easily be distracting to fellow motorists. The lighting differential was also possibly indicative of an electrical problem in the vehicle.
Officer Kalafut's testimony explaining why he stopped the Porsche was found credible by the municipal judge, and we defer to the judge's evaluation of the officer's veracity. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999). The officer had an ample basis to stop the vehicle and look into the apparent problem with the rear lights. The stop under these circumstances was valid, regardless of whether or not the car's equipment was ultimately found to be in violation of the traffic laws. See State v. Williamson, 138 N.J. 302, 304 (1994); State v. Cohen, 347 N.J. Super. 375, 380 (App. Div. 2002).
Because we have sustained the motor vehicle stop under the exception to the warrant requirement recognized in Delaware v. Prouse, supra, we need not reach the trial court's separate reliance upon the community caretaking doctrine. See State v. Martinez, 260 N.J. Super. 75, 78 (App. Div. 1992) (outlining the principles of the community caretaking exception).
The denial of the suppression motion and defendant's ensuing convictions are affirmed. The stay of his sentence is dissolved, effective within ten days of the issuance of this opinion.