May 27, 2010
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
NATHAN CRAFT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 07-07-1136.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 19, 2010
Before Judges Fisher and Sapp-Peterson.
Following the denial of his motion to suppress evidence, defendant pled guilty to second-degree possession with the intent to distribute cocaine, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1); N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(2), and was sentenced, in accordance with a plea agreement, to a five-year prison term subject to a two-and-one-half-year period of parole ineligibility.
Defendant filed this appeal, presenting a single argument for our consideration:
THE WARRANTLESS SEARCH AND SEIZURE WAS NOT JUSTIFIED BY ANY EXCEPTION. AS A RESULT, THE FRUITS OF THAT UNCONSTITUTIONAL SEARCH AND SEIZURE SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUPPRESSED. U.S. CONST. AMENDS. IV AND XIV; N.J. CONST. (1947), ART. I, PARS. 1 AND 7.
We find no merit in this argument.
At the conclusion of a suppression hearing, Judge Frederick P. DeVesa found that, at 2:38 a.m. on June 9, 2007, Officer Michael Sauvigne, the only witness at the suppression hearing, was dispatched to a gas station in North Brunswick. The attendant pointed out damage to an ATM machine on the premises as well as the corresponding damage to a motor vehicle parked alongside. Defendant was seated in the vehicle.
The officer asked defendant for his driving credentials. Defendant first looked in a shirt pocket; the officer, who was standing alongside the vehicle, was able to look down into defendant's shirt pocket and observed a vial of what he suspected to be marijuana. As a result, the officer arrested defendant and advised him of his Miranda*fn1 warnings. Defendant was then seated in the rear of the police vehicle and backup was called.
Judge DeVesa made the following findings as to what occurred next:
The officer then asked the defendant for the registration and insurance card, and the defendant indicated that he did not know where they were located. And according to the officer, he then entered the vehicle on the passenger's side, opened the glove box to obtain the vehicle registration and paperwork, and when he did that, the glove compartment door just fell open, apparently not having a proper hinge, and the officer observed a plastic bag behind the glove box door, which contained smaller plastic bags and tinfoil and a white powdery substance, which the officer believed to be some controlled dangerous substance.
We agree with the judge that the officer's observation of the leafy substance in defendant's shirt pocket warranted the arrest. In addition, the judge correctly observed that it did not follow that the officer was then permitted "to go searching through the vehicle in order to obtain further papers." However, as the judge found, once defendant was "properly secured and under arrest, the officer asked him for the insurance card and the registration, and the defendant was not able to produce it or identify where it could be found." The legitimacy of what followed, which is the crux of defendant's argument on appeal, is whether the officer, as Judge DeVesa described it, was entitled to take "the next step, which was to look in the glove compartment."
The judge acknowledged "there was no real urgent need to search the vehicle" once defendant was arrested, but he also recognized that the exclusionary rule "is designed to deter unreasonable and unlawful police behavior and is not designed to impose very technical and rigid obstacles to reasonable police behavior." Recognizing the vehicle could not be "left on private property in front of a gas station indefinitely," the officer did what the judge found was "a reasonable thing." That is, after defendant was unable to produce his credentials, the officer entered the vehicle for the limited purpose of seeking defendant's credentials, as authorized by State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 12 (1980) and State v. Boykins, 50 N.J. 73, 77 (1967). In engaging in that limited permissible conduct, the officer observed in plain view the contraband in question.
In deferring to these findings of fact, State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999), which are fully supported by the evidence adduced at the hearing, and in determining that the judge applied the correct legal principles, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge DeVesa's comprehensive oral decision.