On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County, Municipal Appeal No. 19-07-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Yannotti and LeWinn.
The State of New Jersey appeals from the judgment of the Law Division entered on January 7, 2009, following de novo review of defendant's municipal court conviction for driving while suspended, N.J.S.A. 39:3-40; that judgment dismissed the complaint based upon the judge's finding that the initial stop of defendant's car was unlawful. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Defendant appeared pro se at trial on June 9 and July 7, 2008, in Middle Township Municipal Court. Police Sergeant William Adams testified that the Middle Township Police Department's Street Crimes Unit was working with the Prosecutor's Office on a drug investigation and police officers were on the lookout for defendant in connection with that investigation. On January 3, 2008, Adams stopped defendant's automobile based upon a motor vehicle warrant issued on October 24, 2006, which Adams stated was still in effect on that date.
During Adams' testimony, defendant asked him, "When was the warrant lifted?" The judge interjected, "Apparently it wasn't... as of the day he stopped you." Adams reiterated that "[t]he warrant was in effect on the date of the stop."
Adams testified further that he was "advised, a few days later, that [defendant's] privileges were suspended." Therefore, "at a later date[,]" Adams issued a summons to defendant for driving while suspended. Defendant stipulated at trial that his driving privileges were suspended on January 3, 2008.
Officer Mark Higginbottom testified the he was "familiar" with defendant. When Higginbottom saw defendant driving his car on January 3, 2008, he asked Adams "to have [defendant] stopped."
Defendant testified that he was "detained in the Middle Township Police Department for a number of hours when the warrant was lifted off of [him], saying it was from Vineland, and [he] was still held for questioning...." Adams was recalled to the stand after defendant's testimony, and testified that the Prosecutor's Office "was doing surveillance on [defendant]." Adams reiterated that "[t]here was an active warrant for [defendant]." The State moved the October 24, 2006 warrant into evidence as Exhibit S-1.
The municipal judge found that Higginbottom recognized defendant "from having previous encounters with him," and "[knew] there [was] an outstanding warrant out for him,... I don't know for what, but for something." The judge found that "the stop was legal. They had probable cause, knowing there was a warrant outstanding for [defendant]." Therefore, the judge was "satisfied [that] the State [had] proved its evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." The judge thereupon found defendant guilty and imposed a twenty-day jail sentence, a suspended fine of $1006 and $33 in court costs.
On appeal to the Law Division, defendant was represented by counsel and challenged "the validity of the traffic stop[,]" claiming that "if the stop was unlawful[,] then any evidence that flow[ed] from the stop must be suppressed." The State objected that "the motion to suppress ha[d] to be filed by rule before trial. It [was] too late to file that now."
The State further pointed out that at the municipal court trial, defendant had stipulated that his driving privileges were suspended on the date of his arrest. This led the Law Division judge to inquire of the State, "So you're arguing that notwithstanding the fact that it might have been an unlawful stop[,]... the acknowledgement by the defendant that he was driving without [a] license... is sufficient enough to withstand scrutiny[?]" The State responded, "Yes, Your Honor. And the reason why the rule exists is so that this [c]court on review would have a record of the officer's testimony as to the reasons for the stop."
The judge observed that the October 24, 2006 warrant stated on its face that it had been "executed" on December 19, 2006. Noting that review on appeal was de novo "based upon what was submitted at the time of the municipal court trial[,]" the judge determined that, "[i]f [the October 24, 2006 warrant] was the reason for the stop[,] I would imagine at this point in time that's what ...