On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Municipal Appeal No. 09-065.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 17, 2010
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Simonelli.
After a trial de novo in the Law Division, defendant Jacquelin Truesdale appeals from her conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. We affirm.
Defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress. At a hearing before the Brielle municipal court judge, Brielle Police Officer Greg Olsen testified that at approximately 2:09 a.m. on June 6, 2009, as he was traveling northbound on Green Avenue, he saw a vehicle traveling toward him southbound with its high beams illuminated. The vehicle was approximately 800 feet from his vehicle when he first observed it. The vehicle, with its high beams still illuminated, came within 500 feet of his vehicle before turning right, or westbound, onto Lake Avenue. Due to the vehicle's "blinding lights," he was unable to discern what type of vehicle it was until it turned.
Officer Olsen determined that the driver, later identified as defendant, had violated N.J.S.A. 39:3-60 by failing to lower her high beams. Consequently, based on a "hunch" that defendant would continue traveling on Lake Avenue to Leslie Avenue, he turned left, also westbound, onto Manasquan Avenue, which is parallel to Lake Avenue, and proceeded to Leslie Avenue. As he expected, defendant turned north onto Leslie Avenue where he saw her make a legal K-turn, park her vehicle and shut off her headlights. He then approached defendant's vehicle to inquire whether she was a resident and, if not a resident, what she was doing in a residential area at 2:00 a.m. Officer Olsen testified that he stopped defendant based on the motor vehicle violation and not on the community caretaking exception.
Based on his subsequent observations of defendant during the stop, Officer Olsen concluded that she was under the influence of alcohol and arrested her. He issued defendant summonses for DWI, driving with high beams illuminated within 500 feet of a motor vehicle, N.J.S.A. 39:3-60, and reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96.
The municipal court judge concluded that Officer Olsen had sufficient probable cause to stop defendant because she came within 500 feet of his vehicle with her high beams illuminated in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-60. Defendant then entered a conditional guilty plea to DWI. The remainder of the charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. The municipal court judge entered the appropriate fines and sanctions, including a seven-month suspension of defendant's driver's license.
Defendant appealed her conviction, de novo, to the Law Division. Following oral argument, the Law Division judge denied defendant's appeal. The judge determined that Officer Olsen had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop defendant based on the motor vehicle violation. Additionally, as a separate and independent justification, the judge found, incorrectly, that the community caretaking doctrine authorized the officer's actions.
On appeal, defendant contends that the Law Division judge erred in finding that the stop was lawful based on a motor vehicle violation, and there was a community caretaker justification for the stop. We agree with the latter contention. Officer Olsen testified he was not acting in a community caretaking capacity when he decided to follow defendant's vehicle. Nonetheless, we conclude that the judge properly denied defendant's motion.
On appeal from a municipal court to the Law Division, the review is de novo on the record. R. 3:23-8(a). The Law Division judge must make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based upon the evidentiary record of the municipal court and must give due regard to the opportunity of a municipal court judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses. State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964). On appeal from a Law Division decision, the issue is whether there is "sufficient credible evidence present in the record" to uphold the findings of the Law Division----not the municipal court. Id. at 162. However, as in the Law Division, we are not in as good of a position as the municipal court judge to determine credibility and should, therefore, refrain from making new credibility findings. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999). "We do not weigh the evidence, assess the credibility of witnesses, or make conclusions about the evidence." State v. Barone, 147 N.J. 599, 615 (1997). We give due regard to the trial court's credibility findings. State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 374, 383 (App. Div. 2000).
Our review of a trial judge's findings is "exceedingly narrow." Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 470. We give great deference to the trial judge's factual findings and will not "engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance." Id. at 471. We also give deference to the trial judge's credibility determinations. Id. at 474; Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 161. However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); see also Finderne Mgmt. Co. v. Barrett, 402 N.J. Super. 546, 573 (App. Div. 2008), certif. denied, 199 N.J. 542 (2009) (indicating that "we do not give any special deference to a trial court's legal conclusion").
In reviewing a motion to suppress, we "must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are 'supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.'" State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (citation omitted); see also State v. Alvarez, 238 N.J. Super. 560, 564 (App. Div. 1990). We will reverse only if we are convinced that the trial judge's factual findings "are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'" Elders, supra, 192 N.J. at 244 (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162). "In those circumstances solely should [we] 'appraise the record as if [we] were deciding the matter at inception and make [our] own ...