On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 09-08-1448.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Axelrad and Lihotz.
On our leave granted, the State appeals from a January 20, 2010 Law Division order granting defendant's motion to suppress entered following an evidentiary hearing. We affirm.
These facts are gleaned from the testimony provided during the suppression hearing. On July 3, 2009, at approximately 3 a.m., defendant requested police assistance to remove someone from his residence. Uniformed Officers Matthew Haras, Milan Patel, and Peter Corforte responded to the scene and Sergeant Frank Tortoriello arrived later.
Ray Bisogno, who was standing outside the residence, told the dispatched police officers he was friends with defendant, the homeowner, and they had had an argument. Bisogno stated he needed his keys to leave. Officer Patel stayed with Bisogno while Officers Haras and Corforte went inside the home. Officer Haras spoke to defendant in the living room and Officer Corforte spoke to his girlfriend, Kimberly Skarzenski, in the kitchen. The record does not clearly describe the nature of the verbal altercation between defendant and Bisogno. After approximately fifteen minutes, Bisogno revealed for the first time that defendant pointed a gun at him and directed that he leave defendant's property. Officer Patel related this to Officer Corforte, who approached Skarzenski with the information. She confirmed defendant had drawn a weapon; however, she did not believe it was loaded.
At that point, Officers Haras, Corforte and Patel conferred with Sergeant Tortoriello. Next, Officers Haras and Corforte confronted defendant asking, "Where's the gun?" Defendant replied it was in the bedroom, walked the officers to the bedroom and admitted the gun was under his pillow. Lifting the pillow, Officer Corforte recovered a black semi-automatic hand gun and a magazine. Defendant was placed under arrest and charged with aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(4).
Prior to trial, defendant moved to suppress the handgun and his statements. The court heard testimony from Officers Corforte and Haras. Both officers described the timeline of events and acknowledged no-one had administered Miranda*fn1 warnings to defendant prior to the inquiry that led to the discovery of the weapon.
Judge Bradley J. Ferencz found both officers were "credible[,] believable[,] hard-working[,] conscientious and acted in what they felt to be an absolutely appropriate investigative manner" and in "good faith." Nonetheless, Judge Ferencz granted the motion to suppress, finding probable cause was established by two independent sources of information, allowing the officers to interrogate and hold defendant so that objectively, defendant was not free to leave.
On appeal, the State challenges the court's determination that defendant was in custody when questioned about the gun. Emphasizing the familiarity of the surroundings and that the limited duration of events belied defendant's view that he was not free to leave, the State argues the court's finding that defendant was detained or restrained must be reversed.
"[A]n appellate court reviewing a motion to suppress 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. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009) (internal quotations and citations omitted). However, "a reviewing court owes no deference to the trial court in deciding matters of law. When a question of law is at stake, the appellate court must apply the law as it understands it." State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 337 (2010) (internal citations omitted).
As a threshold matter, Miranda warnings are required when a person is subject to "custodial interrogation." Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 444, 86 S. Ct. at 1612, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 706. The warnings are designed to inform a suspect of the protections against self-incrimination that are afforded by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See U.S. Const. amend. V (providing in part that "[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself"). See also State v. Hartley, 103 N.J. 252, 260 (1986). "In New Jersey, the privilege is derived from the common law and is codified in our statutes and rules." State v. P.Z., 152 N.J. 86, 101 (1997). See also N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-19; N.J.R.E. 503.
Here, no Miranda warnings were given, thus we examine whether defendant's right against self-incrimination was infringed by the officers' questioning under the circumstances described, such that defendant's statement may not be used in the prosecutor's case-in-chief. Hartley, supra, 103 N.J. ...