On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 09-03-0233.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lihotz and Ashrafi.
By our leave, the State appeals from an order of the Law Division dated September 21, 2009, suppressing all evidence seized from defendant Maurice Loatman's car. The State seeks to present the evidence in defendant's prosecution for possession of cocaine and heroin with intent to distribute. Although the evidence was discovered pursuant to a search warrant, the Law Division concluded that the police violated defendant's Fourth Amendment rights because they detained him and his car without sufficient reasonable articulable suspicion before they obtained a warrant. We disagree with that conclusion and reverse.
On a suppression motion, we defer to the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the trial court. State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009) (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243-44 (2007)); State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999); State v. Hodgson, 44 N.J. 151, 163 (1965), cert. denied, 384 U.S. 1021, 86 S.Ct. 1929, 16 L.Ed. 2d 1022 (1966); State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964). However, we need not defer to the trial court's legal conclusions reached from the established facts, see State v. Loyal, 164 N.J. 418, 452 (2000), in particular, "[i]f the trial court acts under a misconception of the applicable law[.]" State v. Brown, 118 N.J. 595, 604 (1990). The trial court's understanding and application of the law is subject to plenary review on appeal. See State v. Cleveland, 371 N.J. Super. 286, 295 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 182 N.J. 148 (2004).
In this case, there is no dispute about the relevant facts, but the Law Division erred in its application of the law. It failed to apply the holding of State v. Birkenmeier, 185 N.J. 552 (2006), and other cases addressing what constitutes sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop and detain a motor vehicle for purposes of investigating a crime.
On January 8, 2009, at about 4:30 p.m., Detective Cruz of the Vineland Police Department received a call from a reliable confidential informant whom the Vineland Police had frequently used during the prior two years, including for a wiretap investigation that resulted in multiple arrests and charges. Altogether, the informant had provided reliable information leading to about twenty arrests and had made controlled buys of illegal drugs on about ten to fifteen occasions. The informant did not have a criminal record.
The informant told Detective Cruz that he had just observed a drug transaction involving two cars in the area of Third and Chestnut. He described the seller of the drugs as a man known as "Snoop" wearing a red baseball cap and white shirt with red sleeves. He described Snoop's car as a white Infinity G-35 and said that the Infinity headed east on Chestnut Avenue after the drug transaction. The informant said that Snoop was usually in possession of a handgun and dealt in large quantities of heroin. Before the call from the informant, the Vineland Police had no information about a man named Snoop selling drugs.
Detective Cruz and other detectives immediately pursued the informant's tip. A few minutes after the call, Detective Cruz spotted a white Infinity G-35 stopped at a traffic light on Chestnut Avenue. The clothing of the driver matched the description the informant had given. The Infinity pulled into and parked in a gas station. When backup detectives arrived, Detective Cruz and another police car pulled into the gas station and blocked the Infinity so that it could not be moved.
Defendant Loatman was the only occupant of the car. An officer ordered him out, and he complied. The police frisked him, finding no weapon on his person. When asked for motor vehicle credentials, defendant could not produce a driver's license but directed Detective Cruz to other identification in the center console of the car. Defendant denied being known as Snoop, but several people walking to the mini-mart at the gas station greeted him by that name.
At defendant's suggestion, the police searched his person more completely for evidence and found none. When the police asked for consent to search the car, defendant refused.*fn1 Within about thirty minutes, a police officer arrived with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog was walked around the Infinity and reacted positively, indicating the presence of illegal drugs in the trunk. The police seized the car and held it overnight at their headquarters. They released defendant.
Early the next morning, the police obtained a search warrant for the car. In the trunk, they found crack cocaine and heroin, drug paraphernalia including a scale and baggies, cash, and counterfeit money. No weapon was found anywhere in the car.
Defendant was indicted on charges of possession of cocaine and heroin and possession of the same with intent to distribute. He moved to ...