November 12, 2010
STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF A.M., A JUVENILE.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FJ-20-875-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 6, 2010
Before Judges Kestin and Coburn.
After A.M. lost his motion to suppress marijuana taken by the police during an automobile search, he pled guilty to possession of the marijuana with intent to distribute and received a sentence of probation for eighteen months.
On appeal, A.M. asserts that the judge erred in denying the suppression motion and in imposing probation for eighteen months. Since the sentencing argument is without sufficient merit to warrant discussion, R. 2:11-3(e)(2), we will confine ourselves to the validity of the order denying A.M.'s suppression motion.
The only witness on the motion was Officer Timothy O'Brien of the Cranford Police Department. On October 18, 2008, while on patrol in a marked police car, O'Brien saw a car illegally drive through two stop signs. When he stopped and approached the car, he saw A.M. in the driver's seat. A.M.'s eyes were glassy and from outside the car the O'Brien smelled marijuana and saw small bits and pieces of marijuana inside the car on the floor. He directed A.M. to stand at the rear of the car, checked him for weapons, and called for assistance. A few minutes later another Cranford police officer arrived on the scene. O'Brien entered the front of A.M.'s car and noticed a "dime bag with a green, vegetative substance" underneath the ash tray. Based on his training and experience, O'Brien believed (correctly) that the substance was marijuana. Because the car was in a position where it could have been hit by another vehicle, O'Brien decided to move the car to a safer location. While performing that maneuver, O'Brien still smelled marijuana in the car. He looked in the front and back seat areas and saw nothing of interest. Then he looked in the trunk, where there were two bags. One bag was empty and the other had twenty-two bags of marijuana. Before this incident, O'Brien had received information from a reliable informant indicating that A.M. was distributing marijuana around Cranford. The informant said that A.M. kept the marijuana in dime bags in his car and would, when requested by customers, drive to their location to make sales.
A.M.'s motion was addressed only to the twenty-two bags of marijuana found in his trunk. Although he concedes that the officer was entitled to stop his vehicle, he contends that there were insufficient exigent circumstances to justify the search of the trunk and the bags therein.
We do not have to decide whether the judge correctly found that exigent circumstances were present because it is well settled that the smell of marijuana provides a sufficient basis by itself for the immediate, warrantless search of the interior compartments of a motor vehicle. State v. Judge, 275 N.J. Super. 194, 203 (App. Div. 1994); State v. Kahlon, 172 N.J. Super. 331, 340-41 (App. Div. 1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 818, 102 S.Ct. 97, 70 L.Ed. 2d 88 (1981); State v. Guerra, 93 N.J. 146 (1983). Of course, the police officer who smells marijuana must do so from a place where he has a right to be. State v. Cohen, 73 N.J. 331, 344-45 (1977). But defendant does not contend that when O'Brien smelled the marijuana emanating from the trunk of the car he was not in such a position. Consequently, there is no basis for reversing the order issued here.
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