August 7, 2009
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
ARTHUR HOYLE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted June 2, 2009
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 the defendant is arguing on appeal, that there was no basis for the stop based upon that warrant."
The judge found that defendant attempted to raise this argument at the municipal court trial, stating: "There were some questions raised by [defendant], perhaps a little inarticulately so. However[,] he specifically did ask, and we turn to page 5 of that transcript, specifically line 19 where Mr. Hoyle asked: 'When was the warrant lifted?'" The judge noted that the municipal judge had informed defendant that the warrant was in effect on the day he was stopped.
The judge noted further that Adams also indicated that the warrant was in effect on the date of the stop, adding:
If that were so and they were executing on a motor vehicle warrant, which is the apparent purpose of that warrant because I looked at the document, then it would indicate that they would have been stopping him for driving without a driver's license, on the suspended list. When we look at the exhibits, so the question was asked a couple of times the date on the warrant and whether or not it was timed. And so we indicate, according to the document it was discussed that on October 24th, 2006 that the warrant was issued at 10:29 p.m. That would have been a year... and several months earlier than January 3rd, 2008 date that it was used [in] the stop of [defendant].
[Defendant] and counsel in the appeal... raise whether or not there was a lawful stop that even justified any further review of [defendant's] driving status. The State... indicate[s] that... there was never an argument raised challenging the basis or any testimony about the stop. Well, I find that that is not exactly accurate. The State, [and] the officers at the time of trial[,] did indicate [that] they were relying upon this document in evidence, S-1, which is the apparent warrant. So turning my attention to that as well as to [Exhibit] S-2, which is the driver's abstract, it appears to me very clearly on the face of this document that this warrant was issued on October 24th, 2006, that in fact however it was executed. There was actually a disposition on this warrant made on December 19th, 2006 where at that time defendant was sentenced to 10 days in jail. There were fines assessed at the time. He was ordered to report to jail on January 19th, 2007. So that if in fact this information on this exhibit submitted by the State is accurate[,] then this warrant was no longer outstanding and active. It ha[d] already been enforced.... [T]his warrant had been executed, it had been disposed of in December of 2006.
Inasmuch as the State relied upon this warrant that had already been executed and effectuated and disposed of and [was] therefore ineffective at the time of the stop on January 3rd[,] I find that the stop on January 3rd, 2008 was not a lawful stop. Any identification that came thereafter and any ticket issued thereafter was not a... lawfully acquired traffic stop. The ticket should be disregarded. I'm going to vacate the conviction entered at the municipal court level, finding that it was not a valid stop.... And therefore[,] I'm dismissing the charges against [defendant] and reversing the municipal court decision.
There will be a vacation of any penalties that were assessed at the time.
The State requested a stay of the judge's ruling, which was granted.
On appeal, the State raises the following arguments for our consideration:
THIS COURT SHOULD REVERSE THE LOWER COURT'S DECISION TO SUPPRESS ALL EVIDENCE OBTAINED AFTER THE STOP
THIS COURT SHOULD EXERCISE ITS ORIGINAL JURISDICTION AND FIND DEFENDANT GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT OF DRIVING WHILE SUSPENDED
DEFENDANT'S SENTENCE IS IN ERROR
Having reviewed the record in light of these contentions and the controlling legal principles, we find them to be without merit. We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Susan F. Maven, in her decision rendered from the bench on January 7, 2009. We add only the following brief comments.
Under the circumstances presented here, we conclude that defendant's failure to file a formal motion to suppress in the municipal court should not preclude him from obtaining the relief granted by the Law Division judge. Moreover, we concur with the judge's finding that defendant interposed an objection to the legality of his stop by inquiring of Adams, "When was the warrant lifted?" Furthermore, the State's own exhibit, S-1, stated on its face that it had been executed on December 19, 2006. The State never established that Adams reasonably believed, based upon the information available to him, that there was an outstanding warrant when he stopped defendant. The State's only proofs indicated that the warrant had been executed and was not valid at the time of the stop.
Sergeant Adams testified that the October 24, 2006 warrant was the basis for the stop. Therefore, we reject the State's argument that, had defendant filed a motion to suppress, the State would have been able to prove that it had "other legitimate bases upon which to stop defendant's vehicle...." The fact remains that the State presented its case based solely on the October 2006 warrant. The municipal judge found the stop lawful on that basis, concluding that the officers "had probable cause, knowing there was a warrant outstanding for [defendant]."
We are satisfied that the Law Division judge fully discharged her obligation to "determine the case completely anew on the record made before the trial judge giving due, although not controlling, regard to the opportunity of the judge to judge the credibility of the witnesses...." State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 374, 382-83 (App. Div. 2000). The Law Division judge noted that the State's own evidence undermined the legality of the stop of defendant's vehicle on the basis proffered by the police officers.
Finally, we decline as improper the State's request that we exercise original jurisdiction and find defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of driving while suspended. In light of the unequivocal evidence vitiating the legality of the initial stop of defendant's vehicle, had the municipal judge reviewed the documentary evidence before him, he, too, would have been compelled to dismiss the complaint on the same grounds as the Law Division judge found.
In light of our decision, the State's argument that defendant's sentence is "in error" is moot.
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