April 14, 2009
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
STEVEN A. SULLIVAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Indictment No. 06-05-0196.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 25, 2009
Before Judges Cuff and Fisher.
On the evening of December 31, 2005, at a New Year's Eve party at a private residence in Lopatcong, defendant began acting belligerently toward other guests, including Jason Bergmann. After midnight, defendant began yelling at Bergmann, leading to a push by Bergmann and a punch by defendant. Eventually, Bergmann, Stefan Tarnawsky and Justin Rusin*fn1 left the party, but soon realized they were followed by defendant and three others. After chasing and having a brief physical exchange with Tarnawsky, defendant returned to where Bergmann was surrounded by others. Defendant punched Bergmann in the nose, Bergmann swung back, and the two fell to the ground. Someone kicked Bergmann, and then defendant and others punched, kicked and stomped on Bergmann, who called for help and attempted to protect himself by holding his arms over his head. Tarnawsky explained in his testimony how defendant stomped on Bergmann not "play[fully]" but "to break bones." This melee continued until someone was able to pull defendant away.
Bergmann was helped off the concrete driveway by his friends. Tarnawsky observed that Bergmann "had a swollen eye and he was bleeding . . . from his mouth[,] one tooth was almost knocked out[, and] [h]is whole face was swollen." Bergmann, Tarnawsky and Rusin walked away from the area but did not get far before being stopped by a police officer, who called for an ambulance to take Bergmann to the hospital.
Bergmann later gave police a written statement and identified defendant from a photographic array. Defendant was arrested and charged with second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1). At the conclusion of a trial, defendant was found guilty of the lesser-included offense of third-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(7), and sentenced to a four-year prison term.
Defendant appealed, raising the following arguments:
I. THE ADMISSION OF EVIDENCE OF DEFENDANT'S INVOCATION OF HIS RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT DENIED DEFENDANT A FAIR TRIAL (Not Raised Below).
II. THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY LIMITED THE DEFENSE EXAMINATION OF HARVEY GERARD.
III. DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL ON THE SECOND DEGREE ASSAULT CHARGE WAS WRONGFULLY DENIED.
IV. THE JURY CHARGE WAS INCORRECT AND MISLEADING (Not Raised Below).
V. DEFENDANT WAS PREJUDICED BY THE PROS-ECUTOR'S IMPROPER COMMENTS (Not Raised Below).
VI. DEFENDANT'S SENTENCE RESULTED FROM AN IMPROPER EVALUATION OF THE APPLICABLE AGGRAVATING FACTORS.
We find insufficient merit in Points II, III, IV, V and VI to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We also reject the argument contained in Point I for the following reasons.
In Point I, defendant argues that the prosecutor elicited testimony regarding his invocation of the right to remain silent. Defendant is, of course, correct that an accused's Miranda*fn2 rights are to be scrupulously honored by the police, State v. Harvey, 151 N.J. 117, 221 (1997), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1085, 120 S.Ct. 811, 145 L.Ed. 2d 683 (2000), and that the State may not use at trial an accused's silence at or near the time of his arrest against him, State v. O'Neill, 193 N.J. 148, 177 (2007). Contrary to defendant's contentions, however, the State did not offer trial testimony regarding his silence but instead elicited statements voluntarily made by defendant after he was advised of his right to remain silent.
The record reveals that Detective Michael Patricia testified about what defendant said to him after he was advised of his Miranda rights. Specifically, after being read his rights, defendant voluntarily said to Detective Patricia, "I'm not going to admit to anything unless you can help me out." This statement was not an invocation of a right to remain silent.*fn3 To the contrary, defendant voluntarily spoke after being advised of his right to remain silent. As a result, the State had the right to use this statement at the time of trial.
Defendant's other comment about the night in question --"as far as I'm concerned, I was at Hoot's*fn4 part of that night" -- was not an attempt to invoke the right to remain silent but a voluntary statement given in support of a potential alibi. To the extent relevant, the prosecutor was entitled to both elicit this testimony and to comment upon it in his argument to the jury.
Lastly, we note that defendant did not object during Detective Patricia's testimony, requiring that we apply the plain error standard. For the reasons stated, we find no error, let alone plain error, in the admission of any of this evidence.