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State v. Carvajal

June 2, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
PABLO CARVAJAL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In State v. Johnson, 193 N.J. 528 (2008), the Court held that a criminal defendant has no standing to challenge the search or seizure of "abandoned" property. In this appeal, the Court applies and adapts the standards enunciated in Johnson to the case of an unclaimed duffel bag left on a bus.

A confidential informant notified a New Jersey State Police Trooper that a Hispanic male in his late twenties would be "carrying a large quantity of narcotics in his luggage" on a bus traveling from Miami to New York, with a scheduled stop in Union City, New Jersey. The informant described the drug courier's hair style and clothes. The trooper gave this information to the Union City Police Department, which set up surveillance. When the bus arrived in Union City, defendant Pablo Carvajal, who fit the informant's description, stepped off the bus. As other passengers exited and removed their luggage, Detective Laurencio asked Carvajal if he would be willing to answer some questions, and he replied, "Yes." Carvajal explained that he was traveling for business purposes and had no luggage or change of clothes. He stated that he intended to buy wholesale clothing in New York and return to Florida in a few days. When asked if he was carrying any money for business, Carvajal pulled a Washington Mutual bank card out of a small yellow envelope. Detective Laurencio saw a Florida driver's license inside the envelope and asked to see it. Carvajal showed him the license, on which appeared the name Pablo Carvajal. In responding to questions, Carvajal stuttered and appeared to be nervous and evasive.

The bus driver told the detective that the passengers had boarding passes and those who checked luggage would have a claim ticket. Detective Laurencio asked Carvajal for his boarding pass. He produced one with another name on it and said, "That was a guy on the bus that gave me the boarding pass but he left already." Carvajal stated that he did not have his own boarding pass. Detective Laurencio then entered the bus. He told the passengers that he needed to verify their luggage by checking their claim tickets. After the passengers verified their luggage, one large duffel bag remained unclaimed. The detective asked Carvajal if the bag was his. Carvajal replied, "No." A K-9 drug-detecting dog, transported to the scene, then "signaled" to the unclaimed bag. Because of the dog's reaction and because the bag appeared to have been abandoned, Detective Laurencio searched it and discovered sixty-five rubber pellets containing heroin. A backpack inside the duffel bag contained a health card in the name of Pablo Carvajal and a Washington Mutual business card with an account number. Carvajal was arrested and taken to headquarters. A search of his person yielded the small yellow envelope Detective Laurencio earlier had observed. The envelope contained several cards, including a Washington Mutual business card with the same account number found on the card in the unclaimed duffel bag.

Carvajal was indicted for possession with intent to distribute heroin. The trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence recovered from the duffel bag. The court determined that the police conducted an appropriate investigatory stop of Carvajal. The court also concluded that the duffel bag was abandoned property and that Carvajal "acted consistent with someone who had no ownership rights or interest in the bag." Thus, the court held that no "Fourth Amendment right" attached to the warrantless search of the duffel bag. Carvajal then pled guilty.

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of Carvajal's motion to suppress, holding that because he had abandoned the duffel bag, the warrantless search was valid. The Supreme Court granted Carvajal's petition for certification. 200 N.J. 207 (2009).

HELD: The State satisfied its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the duffel bag was abandoned. Carvajal denied having any ownership or possessory interest in the bag, and the police attempted to identify other potential owners. Carvajal therefore had no standing to challenge the warrantless search of the bag.

1. Under the New Jersey Constitution, a defendant has automatic standing to move to suppress evidence from a claimed unreasonable search or seizure if he has a proprietary, possessory or participatory interest in the place to be searched or the property seized. In Johnson, the Court carved out a narrow exception to the automatic standing rule. The Court held that a defendant has no standing to object to the search or seizure of abandoned property because a defendant has no constitutionally protected interest in abandoned property. Property is abandoned when a person, who has control or dominion over property, knowingly and voluntarily relinquishes any interest in it and there are no other apparent or known owners. (pp. 8-10)

2. In Johnson, police executed a search warrant on a third-party in an apartment, entered with guns drawn, and arrested the individual. When Johnson was preparing to leave with a duffel bag and a box, a sergeant asked if the items were his. He mumbled, "Yes," then looked with surprise at the duffel bag and said, "These aren't mine. These aren't mine. That's not my bag." When one of the apartment residents denied knowing who owned the bag, the police grabbed it from Johnson, searched it, and found a gun. The Court observed that the police easily could have asked the other household members whether they owned the bag. Allowing Johnson to assert standing protected those residents from having their effects subjected to an unreasonable search. The Court noted that Johnson did not forfeit his right to challenge the search solely because he did not incriminate himself and say he owned the bag; in fact, his responses to the police were equivocal. In light of all relevant factors, the Court concluded that the duffel bag was not abandoned property and Johnson had standing to challenge its search and seizure. (pp. 10-12)

3. In Johnson, the Court stated that for standing purposes, property is abandoned if: (1) a person has control or dominion over property; (2) he knowingly and voluntarily relinquishes any possessory or ownership interest in it; and (3) there are no other apparent or known owners of the property. Obviously, unless there is an indication that someone owns or controls property left in a public place or on a public carrier, the property -- for practical and standing purposes -- is abandoned. Unlike the defendant in Johnson, Carvajal was not holding the bag. From the objective viewpoint of police, Carvajal had no apparent control or ownership interest in the unclaimed duffel bag on the bus. The bag did not have an exterior tag with his name on it; he did not have a claim ticket for it; and he denied traveling with any luggage or even having a change of clothes. The Court need not decide this case on the issue of whether Carvajal had apparent ownership of the bag because the remaining Johnson factors are satisfied. (pp. 12-14)

4. Assuming Carvajal had control of the bag, the question is whether, under all of the circumstances, he voluntarily and knowingly relinquished an interest in it. The stipulated facts on which the trial court based its ruling do not suggest that the police questioning was overbearing or coercive, that Carvajal equivocated in any way in disclaiming an interest in the bag, or that he did not understand what he was doing when he denied owning any luggage. Despite the brief investigatory detention, Carvajal was not subject to coercive threats, but rather a what-is-your-destination line of questioning. The Court rejects the argument that a person cannot knowingly and voluntarily relinquish an interest in property that may incriminate him in response to non-coercive police questioning. (pp. 14-17)

5. There is no reason to disturb the trial court's finding, based on the totality of the circumstances, that Carvajal acted consistent with someone who had no ownership interest in the bag. The standard for voluntariness is satisfied. In contrast, in Johnson, the voluntariness of the relinquishment of the bag was a real issue. Police were executing a warrant on a third-party; a sergeant who questioned Johnson had his gun drawn when he entered; and Johnson equivocally answered questions about owning the bag. (pp. 17-18)

6. Finally, after Carvajal denied having any luggage on the bus, the police checked with the other passengers. There remained one unclaimed duffel bag with no apparent or known owner in a bus depot. Here, unlike in Johnson, the police did not search the bag until all apparent owners had disclaimed any possessory interest in the property. (p. 18)

7. The State satisfied its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the duffel bag was abandoned. Thus, defendant had no standing to challenge the warrantless search of the bag. (p. 19)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, IVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE LONG did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued December 1, 2009

In State v. Johnson, 193 N.J. 528, 548-49 (2008), we held that a criminal defendant has no standing to challenge the search or seizure of "abandoned" property. In this appeal, we apply and adapt the standards enunciated in ...


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