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State v. Werntz

October 21, 2009

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BRYAN WERNTZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Municipal Appeal No. 22-08.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted October 6, 2009

Before Judges Parrillo and Ashrafi.

Defendant was charged in Manchester Township with motor vehicle offenses, including driving while intoxicated (DWI) in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. He moved in the municipal court to suppress evidence on the ground that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated when the police stopped his vehicle. The municipal court held a hearing and denied defendant's motion. Defendant then pleaded guilty to the DWI charge conditioned on his right to appeal denial of his motion to suppress.

On de novo review of the suppression motion, the Superior Court, Law Division, agreed with the ruling of the municipal court. Defendant now appeals to this court, arguing that the police officer who stopped his vehicle had no articulable and legally sufficient probable cause or reasonable suspicion to make the motor vehicle stop. We reject defendant's arguments and affirm.

The only witness at the suppression hearing was the Manchester Township police officer who had stopped defendant's vehicle. He testified that on January 11, 2008, at about 1:40 a.m., he was driving in his patrol car on State Highway 70. He saw a white pickup truck with its headlights on at the exit of a private shopping center. The truck was not moving, and the officer could not say specifically whether the motor was running, but he believed that the truck was about to pull out onto the highway. He looked into the truck for a second or two and saw the driver leaning forward. There was enough lighting in the area for the officer to see that the driver was not wearing a seatbelt.

Having decided to make a motor vehicle stop, the officer turned at a nearby intersection so that he could pull his patrol car back onto Highway 70 behind the pickup truck. As he was completing his turn, the officer saw the truck passing by the intersection in the same direction that the officer was originally traveling. The officer drove back onto Highway 70 and followed the truck for about a mile. He observed no other motor vehicle violations while following the truck. The officer then turned on his flashing lights and stopped the pickup truck for violation of the seatbelt law, N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f(a).

Upon approaching the truck, the officer told defendant that his vehicle had been stopped because he was not wearing a seatbelt. Defendant responded that he did not like to wear a seatbelt because he had had chest surgery and the seatbelt was uncomfortable. Subsequently, the officer obtained evidence, including Alcotest results, that the State intended to use in its prosecution of defendant for DWI and other offenses.

In the municipal court, the judge found the officer's testimony credible and concluded that the officer had reasonable suspicion of a seatbelt violation to make a motor vehicle stop. The Law Division judge agreed with both the credibility finding and the conclusion that the officer's observations provided reasonable suspicion of a seatbelt violation to justify the stop.

Defendant now makes the following arguments on this appeal:

POINT I DEFENDANT'S VEHICLE WAS IMPROPERLY STOPPED AND HE WAS ILLEGALLY DETAINED AND ARRESTED WITHOUT PROBABLE CAUSE. POINT II AS THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT PROOF THAT THE DEFENDANT HAD COMMITTED ANY MOTOR VEHICLE VIOLATION WHICH JUSTIFIED THE STOP OF DEFENDANT'S VEHICLE ALL EVIDENCE OF ANY ALLEGED INTOXICATION MUST BE SUPPRESSED. POINT III THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY PERMITTED THE PROSECUTOR TO ELICIT AN ALLEGEDLY INCRIMINATORY STATEMENT OF THE DEFENDANT ON RE-DIRECT EXAMINATION OF THE ARRESTING POLICE OFFICER.

Defendant's first two points can be summarized as an argument that the courts below had insufficient evidence to conclude that defendant had violated New Jersey's seatbelt law. Defendant contends first that the officer's testimony was not credible and that he stopped defendant purely on a hunch of DWI rather than because he actually observed defendant not wearing a seatbelt. The municipal court, however, and the Law Division on de novo review both found that the officer had testified credibly about his observations.

Our standard of review of the findings of fact and, in particular, the credibility determinations of the trial courts is "whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. ...


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