On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 09-02-0467.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Ashrafi and Newman.
Following a guilty plea, defendant James Seabrooks appeals the denial of his motion to suppress a handgun seized from his person without a warrant. See R. 3:5-7(d). We affirm.
Detective Richard Weber of the Newark Police Department was the only witness to testify at the suppression hearing. The relevant facts are not in dispute. At about 9:30 p.m. on October 18, 2008, Weber and two other plainclothes police detectives were patrolling a high-crime area of Newark in an unmarked police car. As they passed Fleming and Chapel Avenues, a woman stepped into the street and flagged down their car. Weber testified that the car, a Ford Crown Victoria, was recognizable to the residents as a police vehicle although unmarked. The woman told the detectives that a black man at the first driveway of the nearby Terrell Homes had a gun in his waistband. She described the man as about five feet six inches tall and about 150-160 pounds, wearing a black jacket and blue jeans. She said he was standing near a gold-colored vehicle.
The detectives did not question the woman further but immediately drove about three blocks to the first driveway of the Riverview Court Housing Complex, which is also known as the Terrell Homes. There, they saw a group of four or five young men standing near a gold-colored vehicle in a parking lot. Defendant was among the men, and he was the only one wearing a black jacket and blue jeans. Also, he matched the height and weight description the woman had given.
As the detectives stepped out of their car with their police badges visible, defendant's right hand moved toward his waistband. The detectives ordered him to keep his hands in sight. Defendant complied with the command. Weber immediately conducted a patdown of the outer clothing of defendant and felt a gun in the waistband. He removed and seized a loaded .45 caliber handgun. Defendant was arrested without incident.
A grand jury indicted defendant on charges of second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b, and fourth-degree possession of an ammunition magazine, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3j. After the court denied his motion to suppress the handgun and ammunition, defendant entered into a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to the second-degree charge. He was sentenced in accordance with his plea agreement to five years' imprisonment with three years to be served before eligibility for parole.
On appeal, defendant argues:
BECAUSE THE DETECTIVES LACKED A SPECIFIC, ARTICULABLE SUSPICION THAT DEFENDANT WAS ARMED AND DANGEROUS, THEY HAD NO LEGAL BASIS TO CONDUCT A PATDOWN, AND THE COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE MOTION TO SUPPRESS THE GUN.
We reject this argument and conclude that the trial court correctly denied defendant's motion to suppress evidence.
We defer to the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the trial court on a suppression motion.
State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009) (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243-44 (2007)); State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964). However, we need not defer to the court's legal conclusions reached from the established facts, in particular, "[i]f the trial court acts under a misconception of the applicable law[.]" State v. Brown, 118 N.J. 595, 604 (1990). The trial court's understanding and application of the law is subject to plenary ...