On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment Nos. 08-11-3578 and 08-12-3829.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 8, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Kestin and Newman.
Defendant, Tamir N. Bryant, appeals from two judgments of conviction based on guilty pleas that were entered following the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence. In one judgment, defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1), -5b(3), a third-degree crime; and three other counts, charging one second-degree crime and two third-degree crimes, were dismissed. In the other judgment, defendant was convicted as for a fourth-degree crime because he had violated the community-supervision-for-life provision of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.4d.
Prior to sentencing, defendant moved for leave to withdraw his guilty pleas. The motion was denied, and defendant was sentenced to concurrent terms: three years with one year to be served without parole for the narcotics conviction; and twelve months for the community supervision violation.
In a single point on appeal, defendant challenges the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress, arguing:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING DEFENSE COUNSEL'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS. . . . SINCE TROOPER MOORE'S OBSERVATIONS DID NOT RISE TO THE LEVEL OF PROBABLE CAUSE TO BELIEVE HE HAD WITNESSED A DRUG TRANSACTION TAKING PLACE INVOLVING AN UNIDENTIFIED WHITE MALE AND THE DEFENDANT AND CO-DEFENDANT, THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN CONCLUDING THE ARREST OF THE DEFENDANT AND CO-DEFENDANT AS WELL AS THE ENSUING WARRANTLESS SEARCH AND SEIZURE OF THE NARCOTICS IN QUESTION HAD BEEN PROPER.
The factual evidence at the suppression hearing was elicited from Trooper Moore, a member of the New Jersey State Police. He was "very familiar [with the area of 25th and High Streets in Camden] because it's a very well known drug set" [sic]. He and his partner were in uniform in a marked patrol vehicle near that location in the late afternoon of August 2, 2008. From a distance of approximately fifty "clear and unobstructed" yards, without binoculars, Moore observed a white male approach an Hispanic male and a black male (later identified as co-defendant Alicia and defendant, respectively). The three engaged in a brief conversation and the white male handed "U.S. currency" to defendant. Alicia then walked to the stoop of a nearby abandoned property and, from a particular location partially "out of [Moore's] line of sight," "withdrew some items, walked back over to the white male, [and] handed those items to the white male." Alicia and defendant then "walked back over to the abandoned property and the white male proceeded south on 25th Street."
Believing they had just observed "a hand to hand narcotics transaction," the troopers "pulled up to the scene . . . and . immediately exited [their] vehicle and identified [them]selves as State Police." Just before Moore stepped out of the vehicle, Alicia "dropped a clear plastic bag by his feet." Believing that probable cause to arrest existed, Moore "immediately placed [Alicia] under arrest and secured him and then retrieved the bag from the ground." Subsequent testing determined that the bag contained thirteen smaller bags of heroin and eight of crack cocaine. Moore's search of Alicia incident to his arrest produced $186 in cash and two bags of narcotics contraband. Moore's partner placed defendant in custody and searched him incident to his arrest, finding some $400 in cash on his person.
In considering the evidence proffered on the motion to suppress, Judge Snyder found Trooper Moore's testimony to have been credible and that, in the circumstances described, the police officers had a reasonable basis to believe a narcotics transaction had occurred. He concluded, therefore, that probable cause existed to place defendant and Alicia under arrest, validating the ensuing searches.
Our detailed review of the record in the light of the arguments advanced by the parties discloses ample support for Judge Snyder's findings and conclusions, commanding our deference on appellate review. See State v. Watson, 261 N.J. Super. 169, 176 (App. Div. 1992), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 441 (1993); State v. Boone, 114 N.J. Super. 521, 525 (App. Div.), certif. denied sub nom., State v. Terry, 58 N.J. 595 (1971). Based on the troopers' observations from their surveillance point, as well as the conduct of defendant and Alicia during the surveillance and as the troopers approached them, the officers' belief that a criminal offense had occurred was reasonable, i.e., it was "a well grounded suspicion." State v. Wilson, 178 N.J. 7, 13 (2003) (employing a concept that can be traced back to an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall in Locke v. United States, 7 Cranch (U.S.) 339, 348, 3 L. Ed. 364, 367 (1813)). See also State v. O'Neal, 190 N.J. 601, 613 (2007); State v. Moore, 181 N.J. 40, 45-46 (2004); State v. Nishina, 175 N.J. 502, 515 (2003). Alicia's action in discarding a plastic bag as the troopers neared was an abandonment of the property and fortified the officers' reasonable suspicions that a crime had occurred. See State v. Johnson, 193 N.J. 528, 548-49 (2008).