August 10, 2011
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
CHAD ALSTON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Indictment No. 05-11-1562.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted July 26, 2011
Before Judges Graves and Yannotti.
After his motion to suppress evidence seized without a warrant was denied, defendant Chad Alston pled guilty to counts three and four of Passaic County Indictment No. 05-11-1562 charging him with third-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 (count three); and second-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute within 500 feet of a public building, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.1 (count four). *fn1 On September 11, 2009, the court merged count three with count four and sentenced defendant to a five-year prison term with three years of parole ineligibility.
On appeal, defendant argues that "Detective Griffin's investigatory stop . . . was not supported by reasonable and articulable suspicion and the evidence seized thereafter should have been suppressed." For the reasons that follow, we affirm the order denying defendant's suppression motion.
At the suppression hearing, Detective Marvin Sykes of the Paterson Police Department testified that on August 17, 2005, someone he knew, who had given him useful information on three or four prior occasions, gave him "some information about a drug drop." According to Sykes, the individual told him that David Spencer would be "going to Summer and Hamilton . . . to sell some bricks of heroin" to somebody between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.
Based on this information, Sykes established an undercover surveillance location with "an unobstructed view of the corners of Summer and Hamilton." Sykes "knew Spencer from prior investigations," and Sykes observed Spencer driving a red mini van that stopped at the corner. An individual, later identified as defendant, got into the van "for a couple of minutes," but he exited the vehicle after it was driven a short distance. According to Sykes, defendant did not have anything in his hands when he entered the van. However, he was holding a green towel when he got out of the van. Sykes testified that the location was "a very high drug trafficking area," and he suspected that Spencer was selling drugs to defendant. Therefore, Sykes "had the back up teams move in on [defendant]."
Detective Sergeant Washington Griffin was one of the backup officers that morning. When asked to describe what happened after he received a radio transmission from Sykes, Griffin testified as follows:
A. We pulled up to the person fitting the description. He was carrying a green towel in his hand. . . .
Q. Okay. Now when you . . . first saw the man matching the description, what, if anything, did you say?
A. As we pulled up, when we exited the car, I told him to stop.
Q. Okay. And did he in fact stop?
Q. What, if anything, happened next?
A. He had a green towel in his hand and he moved it for some reason. I don't know if he was raising it to put it over his shoulder or what he was doing with it and two bricks of suspected heroin fell from the towel and he was immediately secured in handcuffs and the evidence was recovered.
Q. Okay. And when you say the two bricks of heroin fell from the towel, did you see where they landed?
A. On the ground.
Q. Were they in plain view?
In an oral decision rendered on June 21 and 22, 2007, the trial court noted there was "not much of a factual dispute." The court found that both officers were "very credible," and that Sykes had corroborated "the information about the drug drop." Moreover, based on "the totality of the circumstances as seen by Detective Sykes," the court concluded that "an investigatory stop was permitted."
As the trial court correctly concluded, the standard necessary to justify a Terry*fn2 stop is lower than the standard of probable cause necessary to justify an arrest. "The police may conduct a Terry stop if the specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity." State v. O'Neal, 190 N.J. 601, 612 (2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "To determine whether the State has shown a valid investigative detention requires a consideration of the totality of the circumstances." State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 247 (2007). In evaluating the "totality of the circumstances," we "are to give weight to 'the officer's knowledge and experience' as well as 'rational inferences that could be drawn from the facts objectively and reasonably viewed in light of the officer's expertise.'" State v. Citarella, 154 N.J. 272, 279 (1998) (quoting State v. Arthur, 149 N.J. 1, 10-11 (1997)).
"We review the record on a motion to suppress to determine whether the findings are supported by credible evidence and the legal conclusions are valid." State v. Smith, 374 N.J. Super. 425, 430 (App. Div. 2005). In this case, our review of the record confirms that the trial court's findings of fact are supported by sufficient credible evidence, and the court correctly applied well-settled legal principles. Accordingly, the order denying defendant's motion to suppress is affirmed substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Reddin in his oral decision on June 21 and 22, 2007.