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State of New Jersey v. Joshua Tillman-Hamlin

March 29, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 09-10-1861.

Per curiam.


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 ...

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