August 16, 2010
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
CHRISTINA CELLA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Indictment No. 07-08-1044.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued January 27, 2010
Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.
Defendant Christina Cella was charged with third-degree possession of heroin in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). After her motion to suppress evidence was denied on July 24, 2008, and her motion for reconsideration was denied on March 27, 2009, defendant pled guilty to a downgraded disorderly persons offense and was sentenced to probation. On appeal, defendant contends the evidence seized from her person following her arrest should have been suppressed. Based on our examination of the record, the briefs, and the applicable law, we affirm the denial of the suppression motion and the motion for reconsideration.
At the suppression hearing, Detective Anthony Aceste of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office testified that on May 11, 2007, at approximately 8:00 a.m., he established an undercover surveillance location in the vicinity of the Hamilton Housing Projects, which he described "as a high narcotics trafficking area within the City of Paterson." From his surveillance location, Aceste observed a black male, later identified as co- defendant Andre Maultsby, engage in several "hand-to-hand transactions." During the same period of time, Aceste observed an unidentified black female in the area. Based on his experience, Aceste testified that "[s]ometimes on street level narcotics [a] female is used as a runner."
At approximately 9:47 a.m., Aceste saw a white female, later identified as defendant, drive up in a gray Nissan Altima. The black female then approached defendant's car and after a short conversation, defendant got out of her car and completed a hand-to-hand exchange with Maultsby. According to Aceste, he was about forty feet away and had an unobstructed view when he observed Maultsby hand defendant a small object "[r]ight after she handed him the money." Defendant then ran back to her car and left "within seconds."
On cross-examination, Aceste conceded he could not say for sure that defendant gave Maultsby money. But Aceste testified defendant handed Maultsby "a green paper substance" that Aceste believed was money.
As a result of his training and experience, which included approximately 100 narcotics-related investigations or arrests, Detective Aceste concluded that he had witnessed a hand-to-hand drug transaction, and he radioed a description of defendant and her vehicle to his back-up unit. When members of the unit arrested defendant, she admitted she had narcotics "in her waistband," and the police recovered "one glassine of heroin."
Defendant did not testify at the suppression hearing, and she did not present any affirmative proofs. Following oral argument on July 24, 2008, the court denied the motion to suppress for the reasons set forth on the record. The court's findings included the following:
And let's not forget the testimony of Detective Aceste where he observed, first a black female, unidentified, approach Ms. Cella's car when she arrived and pulled into a little lot, and after a very brief conversation Ms. Cella gets out of the car, runs towards the café, goes right where Mr. Maultsby is.
Let's not forget Detective Aceste's observations from which he concluded that Ms. Cella appeared to be scared in this area, that he observed a very brief conversation ensue between Cella and Maultsby, and Aceste's observations [of] what he believed to be [a] green paper substance or US currency pass from Ms. Cella to Mr. Maultsby.
And following that exchange, an observation that Maultsby goes into his pocket, pulls out something small, but unidentified, and turns it over to Ms. Cella, who then runs back to her vehicle and leaves the area.
Counsel for Ms. Cella contends that because Detective Aceste was not able to positively affirm that he observed . . . Ms. Cella handing Maultsby paper currency that the requisite probable cause did not exist.
I believe this argument to be without . . . merit, because under a totality of the circumstances analysis, as well as the prior case law cited by this Court . . . an officer does not need to know for sure the items being transferred.
On appeal, defendant presents the following arguments:
PROBABLE CAUSE DID NOT EXIST TO ARREST THE DEFENDANT.
REASONABLE SUSPICION EXISTED TO STOP THE DEFENDANT BUT DID NOT EXIST TO ARREST AND SEARCH THE DEFENDANT.
REASONABLE SUSPICION DID NOT JUSTIFY THE SEARCH OF THE DEFENDANT BASED ON THE OFFICER'S SAFETY.
THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT SUPPORTS SUPPRESSING THE EVIDENCE.
We reject these arguments and affirm the denial of the suppression motion substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Falcone in his comprehensive and well-reasoned oral decisions on July 24, 2008 and March 27, 2009. See State v. Moore, 181 N.J. 40, 47 (2004) (based on an experienced officer's observations of an exchange of money "for small unknown objects" in a neighborhood known for drug trafficking, the trial court properly determined there was probable cause to arrest defendant); see also State v. Johnson, 171 N.J. 192, 215 (2002) ("Probable cause merely requires that the facts available to the officer would warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief . . . that certain items may be contraband.").
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