On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 08-12-03627.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Rodríguez and Yannotti.
We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal from the grant of defendants', Rajohn Hutchins and Edward Ward, motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of an automobile. State v. Hutchins, No. M-362-09 (App. Div. Oct. 20, 2009). We now reverse and remand for trial.
At the suppression hearing, the State presented the testimony of Newark Police Officer Lindorra Rivera. She testified that on June 12, 2008, she and Officer Christopher Bowles were patrolling the 512 section of Newark. At approximately 3:45 a.m., they observed a black vehicle run a red light at the intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and West Bigelow Street. The black vehicle had tinted windows and did not have license plates. Bowles turned on the overhead lights to conduct a motor vehicle stop. The black vehicle continued to travel another five or six blocks before stopping. The officers instructed the driver to turn off the engine. The two occupants were ordered to roll down the windows and place their hands where the officers could see them.
There were street lights in the area where the stop occurred. There was additional illumination from a "well-lit" gas station and a convenience store in the vicinity. Rivera approached the passenger side of the vehicle, where defendant Ward was located. Ward was breathing "heavily." Defendant Hutchins, the driver, was asked to present his license, registration and insurance card. He was unable to produce any of these documents. Hutchins initially provided the officers with a false name and stated that he was a minor.
The officers instructed defendants to step outside of the vehicle. Defendants were patted down for weapons and secured in the back of the patrol car to allow the officers to investigate whether the vehicle was stolen. Defendants were not placed under arrest at this time.
The officers obtained the vehicle identification number (VIN) from the windshield without the assistance of a flashlight. They ran the VIN number. This revealed that the vehicle was not stolen but there was no record of it ever being registered. Bowles decided to conduct an "inventory" of the vehicle. He stood outside the driver's side and shined a flashlight into the vehicle. He saw a "butt of a gun" located in the middle of the console between both seats. The interior of the vehicle was a light beige color. The console was black plastic.
Rivera radioed for another unit to allow the officers to further secure the defendants while they completed their inventory. The second unit arrived within "a minute or two." After the second unit arrived, Rivera looked into the vehicle and observed the handgun. She secured the gun, which was a loaded 9-millimeter. She removed hollow-point bullets. Defendants were then placed under arrest. No further evidence was found on these persons.
Defendants were arrested and charged with second degree unlawful possession of a handgun without a permit to carry, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b, and fourth degree unlawful possession of hollow-point bullets, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3f. Defendants moved to suppress the handgun and the bullets on the grounds that the search was unconstitutional. Following an evidentiary hearing, at which Rivera was the sole witness, the judge granted the defendants' motion to suppress.
On appeal, the State contends:
THE POLICE SEARCH OF DEFENDANTS' MOTOR VEHICLE WAS JUSTIFIED BY THE [AUTOMOBILE] EXCEPTION TO THE SEARCH WARRANT REQUIREMENT AND A VALID SEARCH FOR EVIDENCE OF OWNERSHIP.
The State argues that the judge erred in concluding that the underlying search of the automobile was not supported by exigent circumstances and not considering factors that are relevant in evaluating the exigency of a warrantless search. In particular, the time and location of the stop, the circumstances of the stop, the number of officers present when the handgun was observed, the vehicle possessed tinted windows, the presence of people in the immediate area and the officer's ...