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State of New Jersey v. Keith Williams


January 23, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 09-02-0512.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 21, 2011

Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.

After his motion to suppress evidence without a warrant was denied, defendant Keith Williams pled guilty to third-degree receiving stolen property (a Jeep Grand Cherokee) in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7. Defendant was sentenced in accordance with the negotiated plea to four years in prison to be served concurrently with any violation of probation sentences that he received. On appeal, defendant argues the trial court erred in denying his suppression motion. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The only witness to testify at the suppression hearing was Sergeant Anthony Venancio (Venancio) of the Newark Police Department. Venancio testified that at approximately 11:00 p.m. on November 2, 2008, he and three other officers were investigating "some individuals" seated on the porch of a boarded-up house on 19th Street when an individual, later identified as defendant, "pulled up" in a Jeep. Defendant exited the vehicle while it was still running and walked toward the officers. When asked to explain what happened next, Venancio testified as follows:

A. . . . I walked over to the vehicle on the passenger's side and illuminated the inside with my flashlight and observed ignition damage.

Q. And what did you do after you observed that ignition damage?

A. I had one of the officers detain the individual and then I ran the license plate, New Jersey license plate, which came back to be a stolen auto.

Defendant was then arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. On cross-examination, Venancio testified that he had not received any information regarding a stolen vehicle prior to his arrival at the location.

The trial court's findings and conclusions included the following:

Sergeant Venancio[] was in the area of South 19th Street responding to what is commonly referred to as issues concerning quality of life. There were several individuals sitting on the steps or stoop of a boarded up house and while the officers were investigating the quality of life issues, a Jeep pulls up in the area. An individual gets out of the Jeep, later identified as Mr. Keith Williams, with the engine running and he walks towards the police.

The Sergeant leaves his position and walks towards the motor vehicle and, as he testified to, shines his flashlight into the car, he notices the ignition damage. They further investigate and ultimately, based upon information received, discover that the car is stolen. The fact that the defendant got out of the vehicle and walked towards the police, as far as I'm concerned, is really of no moment. And is really - his motive for walking towards the police, or lack of motive, is clear speculation.

Perhaps he walked towards the officers to divert their attention away from the Jeep but again, I'm not focusing on that; that's clearly speculative. He has not testified. We don't know his mind set. You know, clearly, the officers were legally where they were required to be pursuant to law. They made the observation, or the Sergeant did; he made the observation of the ignition while standing outside the vehicle and merely shining his flashlight inside the vehicle.

Accordingly, based upon what the officer said that they see the defendant, Mr. Williams, drive up in the Jeep, park the Jeep, get out of the Jeep while the motor vehicle's running, walk towards them. The Sergeant goes towards the vehicle, standing outside the vehicle, shines his flashlight in, sees the damage to the motor vehicle. Clearly, Mr. Williams was in possession of the vehicle. There's no dispute he was driving it at this point. As I said, they run the license plate, find - discover that the vehicle was stolen and it's quite clear that the officers had more than sufficient probable cause and defendant's motion is denied.

Defendant raises the following issue on appeal:



Based on our review of the record and the applicable legal principles, we find this argument is clearly without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We add only the following comments. Under the Fourth Amendment of the United State's


The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

[U.S. Const. amend. IV.]

The New Jersey analog to the Fourth Amendment provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the papers and things to be seized.

[N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7.]

It is well-settled that "[t]he touchtone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness," and the reasonableness of a search or seizure is determined "by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes on an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." State v. Davila, 203 N.J. 97, 111 (2010) (quoting United States v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112, 118-19, 122 S. Ct. 587, 591, 151 L. Ed. 2d 497, 505 (2001)).

"Fourth Amendment reasonableness 'is predominantly an objective inquiry.'" Ashcroft v. Abdullah al-Kidd, ____ U.S. ____, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2080, 179 L. Ed. 2d 1149, 1154 (2011) (quoting Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 47, 121 S. Ct. 447, 457, 148 L. Ed. 2d 333, 347 (2000)); see also State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 219 (1983) ("[T]he proper inquiry for determining the constitutionality of a search-and-seizure is whether the conduct of the law enforcement officer who undertook the search was objectively reasonable . . . ."), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S. Ct. 1295, 79 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1984).

The primary issue in this case is whether defendant's investigative stop and detention was permissible under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968). As the New Jersey Supreme Court has stated:

Terry recognized a narrowly drawn exception to the probable-cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment for certain seizures of the person that do not rise to the level of full arrests. The Court found that such an intrusion was permissible for two primary reasons. First, a Terry stop----brief and narrowly circumscribed----was said to involve a wholly different kind of intrusion upon individual freedom than a traditional arrest. Second, under such circumstances, the government's interest in preventing imminent criminal activity may be substantial enough to outweigh the still-serious privacy interests implicated by a limited Terry stop. Thus, when the intrusion on the individual is minimal, and when law enforcement interests outweigh the privacy interests infringed in a Terry encounter, a stop based on objectively reasonable and articulable suspicions, rather than upon probable cause, is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

[State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 477 (1998) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).]

A stop becomes the "functional equivalent" of an arrest, and thus must be supported by probable cause, when the officer's conduct is more intrusive than necessary to confirm or dispel his suspicion in a short period of time. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S. Ct. 1319, 1325-26, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229, 238 (1983); Dickey, supra, 152 N.J. at 478. While there is no bright-line test to determine when police conduct exceeds the bounds of an investigative stop, courts have enumerated various factors to aid in the analysis: (1) the length of time and unnecessary delays involved; (2) the degree of fear and humiliation engendered by the police conduct; (3) whether the suspect was transported to another location or isolated from others; and (4) whether the subject was handcuffed or confined in a police car. Dickey, supra, 152 N.J. at 478-79 (citations omitted).

In this case, Venancio did not conduct a "search" under the United States or New Jersey Constitutions when he observed the interior of the Jeep through a window. See State v. Johnson, 274 N.J. Super. 137, 153 (App. Div.) ("[T]he viewing of objects which are in plain view within an automobile does not constitute an unlawful search."), certif. denied, 138 N.J. 265 (1994). And Venancio's use of a flashlight "did not transform an otherwise plain-view observation into an impermissible search." State v. Nishina, 175 N.J. 502, 517-18 (2003). Furthermore, based on the vehicle's "ignition damage," it was reasonable to detain defendant while Venancio conducted a license plate check; there was probable cause to arrest defendant after Venancio learned that the Jeep was reported stolen; and the record does not support defendant's claim that his detention "amounted to an illegal arrest."

An appellate court "should give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by [the judge's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964). Consequently, findings by a trial court should not be disturbed by a reviewing court unless they are clearly mistaken "and so plainly unwarranted that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction." Id. at 162. This is not such a case. "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 the present matter, we are satisfied the trial court's findings of fact are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record, and the court correctly applied well-settled legal principles. The order denying defendant's motion to suppress is therefore affirmed.



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