On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket Nos. FJ-09-3490-08 and FJ-09-3548-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 13, 2010
Before Judges Sabatino and J. N. Harris.
On May 19, 2008, when M.R. was seventeen years old, he was charged with juvenile delinquency for committing acts which, if committed by an adult, would have constituted two crimes of second-degree possession of handguns without first having obtained permits to carry the same, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b) (counts 1 and 5); two crimes of second-degree possession of weapons for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a)(1) (counts 2 and 6); a third-degree crime of defacing a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-9(e) (count 3);*fn1 and a fourth-degree crime of unlawful possession of a firearm by a minor, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-6.1(b) (count 4).
Following a bench trial, the Family Part judge entered an adjudication of delinquency on August 11, 2008. When M.R. was sentenced on September 5, 2008, the court found that M.R. had violated the terms of probation that had been previously imposed in January 2008 for what would have been third-degree possession of a handgun without first having obtained a permit for the same, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b). After merging several of the counts,*fn2 the Family Part judge ordered M.R. to serve an aggregate custodial term of three years.*fn3 On appeal, M.R. contends that his adjudication must be vacated because of "the State's failure to prove that M.R. had possessed either of the two handguns." After a careful review of the record and applicable case law in light of the arguments advanced on appeal, we affirm.
The factual background of the events that resulted in M.R.'s adjudication of delinquency is not complicated. On May 19, 2008, Jersey City Police Officers Javier Lema and Danny Sheridan were dispatched to the area of Johnston and Halladay Streets to investigate a claim that persons were attempting to break into a Toyota Camry. Upon the officers' arrival on the scene, Officer Lema noticed several parked Camrys, but observed nothing suspicious. He encountered, and then spoke with, the individuals who had called the police. Officer Lema was advised that four juveniles had been observed wearing dark clothing and making furtive movements around one or more of the Camrys.
Officers Lema and Sheridan began to investigate further by approaching the parked Camrys to inspect them for damage and in an effort to try to locate the juveniles. As Officer Sheridan slowly drove the police vehicle, Officer Lema walked along the street. Approaching the third Camry, Officer Lema "heard the sound of a metallic object hit the ground" and--also emanating from the vicinity of the third Camry--Officer Lema testified:
I also heard - it was like people having a conversation. It was muffled. It wasn't distinguishable what they were saying; however, it was - it was apparent it was people having conversation or talking to one another.
Upon Officer Lema's closer approach to the vehicle, he observed "three black male juveniles appear to stand up from a crouching position from the front passenger right tire I would say, stand up and begin to walk across the street." Lema believed that they had all been crouching down together and that "[t]hey came from the very same spot."
Officers Lema and Sheridan immediately detained the three individuals, one being M.R., for further investigation and questioning. Upon checking the Camry for possible damage, Officer Sheridan found two handguns stowed behind the front passenger tire of the vehicle, "[e]xactly where they [the juveniles] were - where they stood up from." The guns were seized for evidence and later identified as a Raven's Arm 25 caliber semiautomatic and a Winchester 45 caliber handgun, the latter of which had its serial numbers defaced.*fn4 M.R. and the others were immediately placed into custody, handcuffed, and contained in the back of the patrol car.*fn5
At trial, M.R. called one of the other juveniles involved in the incident, M.D., to testify on his behalf. M.D. stated that the 45-caliber weapon was his and the 25-caliber weapon was another individual's, whose name was M.T. M.D. testified, "I had one of the guns and the other boy [M.T.] had the other one." The witness further testified that when the police arrived, he and M.T. secreted the guns under the Camry. They then ran across the street to where M.R. was just allegedly coincidentally walking, in an effort to make believe that M.D. was just casually talking to a friend and "make it seem like we weren't doing ...