April 22, 2009
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
AL-AMIN MEANS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment Nos. 06-06-1761 and 06-08-2541.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 9, 2009
Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.
Defendant was charged with multiple offenses under two Essex County indictments, No. 06-06-1761 and No. 06-08-2541. After his suppression motion pertaining to No. 06-06-1761 was denied, defendant pled guilty to one count in each of the indictments, namely count seven of No. 06-06-1761, third-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property on March 24, 2006, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7, and count six of No. 06-08-2541, third-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute on January 17, 2006, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1) and -5b(3). As recommended in the plea agreement, defendant was sentenced under Indictment No. 06-06-1761 to four years imprisonment with a two-year parole disqualifier, and under No. 06-08-2541 to a concurrent four-year prison term.
The sole issue defendant raises on appeal is that the trial court erred in denying his suppression motion under No. 06-06-1761. More specifically, defendant argues:
THE POLICE VIOLATED THE DEFENDANT'S FEDERAL AND STATE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE WARRANTLESS SEARCH AND SEIZURE COMPLIED WITH THE FOURTH AND FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION AND ART. I, PAR. 7 AND ART. I, PAR. 1 OF THE NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTION.
A. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE SEIZURE OF THE VEHICLE WAS LAWFUL.
B. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE SEARCH OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE DATABASE AS PART OF A NARCOTICS INVESTIGATION WAS REASONABLE, NOT CAPRICIOUS AND DISCRIMINATORY.
C. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE SEIZURE OF THE DEFENDANT, INCLUDING ORDERING HIM OUT OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE, WAS LAWFUL.
D. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE ARREST AND SUBSEQUENT SEARCH OF THE DEFENDANT WERE LAWFUL.
E. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE STRIP SEARCH OF THE DEFENDANT WAS LAWFUL.
We reject these arguments and affirm.
On the evening of March 24, 2006, eight officers were conducting a narcotics surveillance in a particular area in East Orange. They were looking for an individual expected to receive drugs. All of the officers were in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles, but they wore police badges around their necks and police jackets or vests. At about 6:30 p.m., as it was getting dark, Officer Daniel Francis observed a black Honda Accord with tinted windows circle the block several times. He called dispatch and requested a check on the license plate. He was informed the vehicle was owned by Inger Stevens. The registration was valid, but Stevens' driver's license was suspended.
Francis broadcasted the information and proceeded to follow the Honda, intending to stop it. The Honda pulled into the parking lot of a commercial establishment. Francis pulled in behind it, and other police vehicles involved in the investigation also responded.
As officers approached the vehicle on foot, they could see two occupants, a female driver and a male, later identified as defendant, in the front passenger seat. As described by Officer Shawn Clark, both were looking in a downward manner. [Defendant] looked up continuously I guess to identify where I was located. His hands was [sic] in and about his waist area which also was located around -- I observed his hands come from behind him. At that point, he was still just turning towards the other female in the vehicle who was in the driver's seat, which they was [sic] both at that point just looking down going in about their waist area.
Clark "observed them moving their hands around about their waist area, around the seat of the vehicle." Defendant's hands were "around the rear of his back, so I couldn't really tell exactly if he was going to pull a weapon or anything." Clark ordered the occupants to show their hands. They did not initially respond but continued acting in the manner he described. After several commands, they complied and raised their hands. He then ordered both occupants out of the vehicle. The female acknowledged that she was Stevens and that she did not have a valid driver's license in her possession. Both were pat searched for weapons with negative results.
At about the same time, Detective Robert O'Neil shined his flashlight through the front windshield. He observed a plastic bag with a white substance in it on the driver's seat near the center console. Based upon his training and experience, he believed the object was illegal drugs. He informed other officers of his observation. Stevens and defendant were asked about the suspected drugs. They both disclaimed any knowledge. Both were placed under arrest. They were handcuffed and transported separately to the Essex County Narcotics Task Force headquarters.
Because of the movements of both individuals in the car, their failure to immediately respond to the direction to show their hands, and the seizure from the car of suspected illegal drugs, Stevens and defendant were strip searched before being transported to the Essex County jail. Lieutenant Thomas Kelly was the supervising officer. He authorized the strip search of defendant and signed the appropriate authorization form. The basis for the search was probable cause to believe defendant possessed drugs or weapons and a search incident to arrest.
During the strip search of defendant, a black bag was seen protruding from his buttocks area. It was removed and seized. There was some inconsistency in the testimony of the various officers at the suppression motion as to the precise manner in which the bag was seized by the police. It may have fallen out of defendant's buttocks area; or defendant might have removed it himself, and Detective Robert O'Neil immediately grabbed it from defendant; or an officer might have removed it directly. All officers agreed, however, that no body cavity search was conducted. The black bag contained four bags of crack cocaine and fifteen glassine envelopes of heroin.
Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found on the front seat of the Honda and that seized from his person as a result of the strip search. He argued that the initial stop was illegal, there was no basis to arrest defendant because the suspected drugs observed in plain view were on the driver's seat, and that the strip search "which [defendant] submit[ted] was more of a body cavity search" was illegal.
Judge Vena, after hearing the testimony of six of the officers who were involved in the incident, including Francis, O'Neil, Clark and Kelly, rejected the arguments. He found the testimony of all of the officers credible. He found that, notwithstanding some inconsistencies about the precise mechanics of the strip search, no body cavity search occurred. His factual findings were substantially as we have described the events. Those findings are well supported by the substantial credible evidence in the record of the suppression hearing, and we accept them. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999); State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). We also agree with Judge Vena's conclusion that, based upon those facts, the State carried its burden of proving the validity of the warrantless search and seizure.
Although the police did not actually stop the Honda, they acted lawfully in approaching the occupants for investigative purposes. Having observed the vehicle with tinted windows circle the block several times, the police acted reasonably in obtaining a look-up on the license plate. Even without any suspicious behavior, a look-up limited to the registration status of the vehicle, the license status of the registered owner, and whether the vehicle has been reported stolen, may be obtained. State v. Donis, 157 N.J. 44, 54-55 (1998). When the look-up reveals that the owner's license has been suspended, "[t]hat information itself [gives] rise to the reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was driven in violation of the motor vehicle laws and [is] in itself sufficient to justify a stop." Id. at 58.
The next question is whether the police had the right to require the occupants to get out of the vehicle. Once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained, the right to require the driver to get out of the vehicle is unrestricted. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111, 98 S.Ct. 330, 333, 54 L.Ed. 2d 331, 337 (1977). As to the passenger, under New Jersey jurisprudence, the totality of the circumstances must give rise to specific and articulable facts that would create in an objectively reasonable officer a heightened awareness of danger. State v. Smith, 134 N.J. 599, 618 (1994). The circumstances here included a vehicle with tinted windows circling the block several times, and, when police presence was observed, the occupants acted furtively, as if secreting items on or about their persons, and failed to immediately comply with commands to show their hands. This was a sufficient basis to require the passenger to get out of the vehicle.
Upon the plain view observation of suspected illegal drugs in the car, there was probable cause to arrest both occupants. Although the drugs were on the driver's seat, they were in close proximity to the passenger's seat, thus being within the area of control of defendant as he was seated on the passenger's side. They were in open view. Thus, probable cause that defendant constructively possessed the drugs was established because defendant had "open and free access" to them. State v. Palacio, 111 N.J. 543, 552 (1988).
The strip search of defendant was appropriately conducted because the police had probable cause to believe that he secreted additional drugs (or possibly weapons) under his clothing. Probable cause derived from the seizure of drugs from the car in the immediate area where defendant had been sitting, combined with the circumstances of his presence in a car circling the block several times and, most importantly, the observations of defendant quickly moving his hands under his clothing when he became aware of the police presence and refusing to immediately stop those actions and show his hands when ordered to do so. The police therefore had a reasonable and articulable basis for probable cause that defendant possessed contraband under his clothing.
Defendant was the subject of a custodial arrest for a crime. Because of the particular circumstances giving rise to the reasonable belief that he possessed contraband under his clothing, the strip search was justified incident to the arrest. Even if defendant's arrest was for an offense other than a crime, the strip search would have been allowed. N.J.S.A. 2A:161A-1b. The search conformed with the requirements of N.J.S.A. 2A:161A-4a. See also State v. Harris, 384 N.J. Super. 29, 48-50 (App. Div.) (noting that totality of circumstances must support reasonable belief that additional drugs would be secreted under the clothing to justify a strip search), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 357 (2006).
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