March 29, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
JOSHUA TILLMAN-HAMLIN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 09-10-1861.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 21, 2012
Before Judges Graves and J.N. Harris.
Defendant Joshua Tillman-Hamlin appeals from a June 18, 2010 order denying his motion to suppress evidence. Following the entry of the order, defendant pled guilty to unlawful possession of a shotgun (count three), and unlawful possession of a handgun (count six). The court sentenced defendant to concurrent, seven-year prison terms with three years of parole ineligibility. We affirm defendant's convictions and the order that denied defendant's suppression motion, but remand for the entry of a corrected judgment of conviction and resentencing on count three.
Patrolman Edward Kunder and Sergeant James Vaughn of the Stafford Township Police Department were the only witnesses to testify at the suppression hearing on April 30, 2010. According to the State's proofs, a homeowner on Lighthouse Drive telephoned the police department at approximately 10:15 a.m. on March 22, 2009. The caller reported that two African-American males "in a white vehicle," subsequently identified as defendant and co-defendant Musaddiq Salaam, "came up to [his] residence, knocked on the door [and] asked to come in to call the police." The homeowner told the men that he would call the police for them, but the two men departed without waiting for the police to arrive.
Upon receipt of the homeowner's call, Kunder was dispatched to the home on Lighthouse Drive and arrived in "less than three minutes." After speaking with the homeowner, and obtaining a description of the vehicle the two men were in, Kunder proceeded to "check the area" for the vehicle. Kunder testified he "was trying to figure out why they [asked to call the police] and then just didn't stay around."
About ten minutes later, Kunder observed a white Oldsmobile matching
the description provided by the homeowner on Bonita Lane, less than
half a mile away from Lighthouse Drive. Salaam was the driver, and
defendant was the front-seat passenger. After the vehicle was pulled
over, Kunder asked if they were the same individuals who were at the
Lighthouse Drive location, and they acknowledged they were. Kunder
asked for identification but neither of the men had a driver's
license, so he obtained their names and dates of birth.*fn1
The two men also told Kunder "that they had stuff stolen from
them and they wanted to make a police report."
Kunder then transmitted the information he had received to the police dispatcher, who subsequently notified him there were "active warrants" for both men. At that point, defendant and Salaam were placed under arrest and taken into custody.
Following the arrests, it was necessary to move the Oldsmobile because "it was in a bad spot, it was blocking a driveway and obstructing the road." Vaughn then proceeded to move the vehicle with Salaam's consent. While Vaughn was operating the vehicle, he observed the butt of a handgun protruding from a red bandana on the passenger's side floor. Upon further inspection, Vaughn determined that the weapon was a loaded .22 caliber handgun.
At this point, Salaam was read his Miranda*fn2 rights, which he said he understood, and he was asked if there was any other contraband or weapons in the vehicle. Salaam advised the officers that "there was a shotgun in the trunk," and a loaded shotgun was subsequently recovered from the trunk of the vehicle after it was impounded and the police obtained a search warrant.
In an oral decision on June 18, 2011, the trial court denied defendant's suppression motion. The court found that the motor vehicle stop was lawful because the police had a community caretaking responsibility to follow up on the homeowner's report that the two men might be in need of police assistance. The court also found that it was "objectively reasonable" for Kunder to ask for identification and for Vaughn to enter the vehicle because it was "blocking a driveway" and "obstructing traffic." The court concluded that Vaughn was lawfully in the vehicle when he observed the handgun in plain view on the passenger's side floor; and that the shotgun was lawfully seized pursuant to a search warrant. Finally, the court determined the weapons would have been inevitably discovered when the vehicle was reclaimed by its owner.
On appeal, defendant presents the following arguments:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN APPLYING THE COMMUNITY CARETAKING EXCEPTION, IN CONCLUDING THAT DEFENDANT LACKED AN EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY IN THE VEHICLE, AND IN APPLYING THE DOCTRINE OF INEVITABLE DISCOVERY. THE MOTION TO SUPPRESS THE EVIDENCE SHOULD HAVE BEEN GRANTED BECAUSE THE OFFICER HAD NO BASIS FOR CONDUCTING A MOTOR-VEHICLE STOP. THEREFORE, ALL THAT FLOWED FROM THE ILLEGAL STOP WAS FRUIT OF THE POISONOUS TREE.
A. THE COMMUNITY CARETAKING DOCTRINE IS INAPPLICABLE TO THIS CASE AND THE POLICE LACKED ARTICULABLE AND REASONABLE SUSPICION TO BELIEVE DEFENDANTS HAD OR WERE ABOUT TO COMMIT A CRIMINAL OFFENSE.
B. THE COURT ERRED IN ITS CONCLUSION THAT DEFENDANT LACKED A REASONABLE EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY IN THE VEHICLE STOPPED.
C. THE INEVITABLE DISCOVERY RULE AND THE INDEPENDENT SOURCE RULE ARE INAPPLICABLE TO THIS CASE.
THE CONVICTION AND SENTENCE ON COUNT THREE MUST BE MODIFIED, OR THE MATTER REMANDED FOR THE TRIAL COURT TO DO SO.
"[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. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). "A trial court's findings should be disturbed only if they are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'" Id. at 244 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)). On the other hand, we are "neither bound by nor required to defer to" the trial court's legal conclusions. State v. Gandhi, 201 N.J. 161, 176 (2010).
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. Jones, 143 N.J. 4, 19 (1995) ("The main test always remains whether the law enforcement officer has acted in an objectively reasonable manner."). When determining whether a warrantless seizure is justified, "[t]he question is not whether the police could have done something different, but whether their actions when viewed as a whole, were objectively reasonable." State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61, 81 (2009) (citing State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264, 278 (2004)).
In the present matter, the trial court found that defendant's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated because the handgun seized from the Oldsmobile was in plain view while the police were engaged in a community caretaking function, and the shotgun was recovered during the execution of a lawful search warrant. The court's findings are amply supported by the record, and we are satisfied the matter was correctly decided. See State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 237 (1983) ("We do not believe that a police officer lawfully in the viewing area must close his eyes to the suspicious evidence in plain view."), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S. Ct. 1295, 79 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1984).
Because defendant and Salaam were unable to produce the registration or other proof of ownership for the Oldsmobile when they were arrested, there was a "substantial police need" to impound the vehicle. State v. Mangold, 82 N.J. 575, 582 (1980) (quoting State v. Slockbower, 79 N.J. 1, 8 (1979)). Moreover, it is clear from Vaughn's testimony regarding the standard procedures followed by the Stafford Township Police Department that the handgun and the shotgun would have inevitably been discovered by the police when the stolen vehicle was recovered by its owner. See State v. Holland, 176 N.J. 344, 360-61 (2003); State v. Sugar, 100 N.J. 214, 238-40 (1985). Accordingly, the order denying defendant's suppression motion is affirmed.*fn3
In his second point, defendant argues that the sentence imposed on count three is illegal because it is a third-degree offense. The State agrees and we concur. Accordingly, defendant's judgment of conviction must be corrected, and defendant must be resentenced on count three.
In view of the foregoing, defendant's convictions are affirmed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Jurisdiction is not retained.