On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 09-052.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: January 20, 2011
Before Judges Fisher and Fasciale.
Defendant appeals from his conviction for driving with a suspended license, N.J.S.A. 39:3-40. He argues that the Law Division judge erred by not dismissing the complaint because the motor vehicle stop was invalid. We affirm because the police officer's suspicion that defendant was driving with a suspended license was reasonable.
At 9:45 a.m. Officer Erik Heller monitored traffic on Route 202, performed a random license plate check on his mobile data terminal (MDT) inside the patrol car, and discovered that defendant's vehicle received a "hit" for a driver's license suspension. After he observed that defendant matched the general description set forth in the photo from the MDT, Officer Heller activated his overhead lights, stopped defendant's vehicle, approached it, and informed defendant that he conducted the stop because defendant's license was suspended. Defendant told the officer that his license was suspended because of a driving while intoxicated (DWI) offense. After Officer Heller verified that the license was suspended for a DWI, he issued the appropriate ticket to defendant.
In the municipal court defendant moved to dismiss the charges and claimed that the stop was invalid because there was no evidence that he operated his vehicle improperly. The judge denied the motion and defendant pled guilty. The municipal court judge suspended defendant's license for one year, ordered defendant to serve ten days in the Sheriff Labor Assistance Program (SLAP), and imposed fines and penalties. Defendant appealed to the Law Division.
The Law Division judge remanded the matter to develop the record concerning the reason for the vehicle stop. The municipal judge conducted a hearing at which Officer Heller and defendant testified. The judge found the officer's testimony to be "very credible," and determined that the officer stopped defendant's vehicle because the random MDT check revealed that defendant's driving privileges were suspended.
After the remand hearing, the Law Division judge conducted a de novo review of the record. He concluded that Officer Heller was a credible witness, and found defendant guilty of driving with a suspended license. The Law Division judge suspended defendant's license for one year, ordered that he participate in ten days of the SLAP, and imposed fines and penalties.
On appeal, defendant raises the following points:
THE "EVIDENCE" REGARDING THE STOP IS INSUFFICIENT AND THE STOP IS INVALID POINT II
THE DEFENDANT WAS PREJUDICED BY THE COURT LEARNING THAT THE SUSPENSION WAS FOR A DWI, WHICH IS IRRELEVANT In a matter such as this, our scope of review is limited. Following defendant's conviction in municipal court, he appealed to the Law Division pursuant to Rule 3:23-1. See, e.g., State v. Buchan, 119 N.J. Super. 297, 298 (App. Div. 1972). The Law Division judge then conducted a trial de novo on the municipal court record pursuant to Rule 3:23-8(a). See, e.g., State v. Avena, 281 N.J. Super. 327, 333 (App. Div. 1995). In conducting that trial, the Law Division judge was required to give "due, although not necessarily controlling, regard to the opportunity of the [municipal court judge] to judge the credibility of the witnesses." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964). In our review, we must likewise give deference to the findings of the trial judge that were influenced by his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses. Id. at 161. Having done so, we must then determine whether the conclusions of the Law Division judge "could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." Id. at 162. Our review of the law is de novo. Id. at 158-59.
"'A police officer is justified in stopping a motor vehicle when he has an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle offense.'" State v. Pitcher, 379 N.J. Super. 308, 314 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463 (1999)), certif. denied, 186 N.J. 242 (2006). Officers may check license plates on MDTs randomly without any reasonable suspicion of a violation of the motor vehicle laws. Ibid. "[W]hen the records reveal that the owner's license to drive is suspended, that information is sufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle ...