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State v. Bermudez

August 2, 2010


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment Nos. 05-11-2538 and 05-05-1173.

Per curiam.


Submitted March 3, 2010

Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.

After the trial court denied his suppression motion, defendant Ariel Bermudez pled guilty to first-degree robbery and various other charges in two separate indictments. On appeal, defendant contends the plain view doctrine cannot justify the seizure of evidence from a motel room because the officer who discovered the evidence "was not lawfully in the motel room when he supposedly saw a gun sticking out from behind a refrigerator on the far wall." In addition, defendant claims his sentence "is excessive and should be reduced." We affirm.

On December 27, 2004, two armed males forced their way into a jewelry store in Marlboro Township owned by John and Valerie Humbert and robbed them at gunpoint. Both men wore masks, but one of the masks kept falling down during the course of the robbery, and the Humberts saw the man's face. When the men left, Mr. Humbert called the police, and Detective Michael Meany of the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office assisted with the investigation. Both Mr. and Mrs. Humbert described the man whose face had been exposed and said he had a scar over his eye.

On January 21, 2005, Meany was contacted by the Howell Township Police regarding another robbery investigation involving two sisters, Elinet Vega and Jacqueline Ramirez. The sisters reported they had been assaulted by an unidentified gunman who repeatedly demanded to know where "I Just's stuff was." The assault occurred while the sisters were occupying a motel room with Jeffrey Santos, Ms. Ramirez's boyfriend. Ramirez and Santos both gave formal statements to the police and advised the police that defendant's nickname was "I Just."

When Ramirez was interviewed, she said her sister had confided in her that she drove the car used during the robbery of the jewelry store. Ramirez and Santos told the police that the gunman probably came to the motel room demanding "I Just's stuff" because Vega had been involved in the robbery. According to Ramirez and Santos, defendant believed Vega was responsible for stealing some of the jewelry from him.

When the police interviewed Santos, he told them defendant admitted "he did this jewelry store robbery." In addition, Santos said that defendant was "a ranking member of the 'Bloods' gang," he was "always armed with a handgun," he was always with other individuals, and he "always [had] an armed driver with him."

Based on the information provided by Ramirez and Santos, Detective Meany attempted to interview Elinet Vega but was unable to locate her. When Meany spoke to members of Vega's family, they said they were concerned for her safety because they had not seen her for several days, and Vega had told them she was afraid defendant would kill her.

During the course of his investigation, Detective Meany learned that there were three outstanding arrest warrants for defendant, and that Ocean County Social Services had placed Vega in a room at the La Fontana Motel in Seaside Heights. On January 26, 2005, Meany and another officer were traveling to the motel when the Howell Township Police Department notified him that defendant was in room 115.

Upon arriving at the motel, Meany observed defendant near a pay phone outside the motel office, and he contacted his office and the Seaside Heights Police Department for assistance. Meany planned to "surprise" defendant and arrest him while he was using the phone, but was unable to do so before defendant hung up the phone and went to room 115 on the second floor of the motel.

Meany confirmed that room 115 was registered to Vega and obtained a key to the room at the motel office. He also called defendant on his cell phone and told him to come out of the room "with his hands in the air." Defendant initially refused to leave the room, but a few minutes later "exited the room with his hands about chest high." At that point, Meany ordered defendant to "get down on the ground" and handcuffed him.

At the suppression hearing, Meany testified that defendant left the door to room 115 "wide open" when he exited the ...

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