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State of New Jersey v. Jose Vasquez

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


April 11, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOSE VASQUEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment No. 10-03-0463.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted March 21, 2012

Before Judges Fuentes, Koblitz and Haas.

After his motion to suppress was denied, defendant Jose Vasquez pled guilty to third-degree conspiracy to possess cocaine, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). He was sentenced to one year of probation. Defendant appeals the denial of his motion to suppress. We affirm.

I.

At 11:00 p.m. on December 16, 2009, Elisa Martinez, an Ocean Township police officer, responded to a Dunkin' Donuts store on State Highway 35 to investigate a report of a disorderly person.

When Martinez arrived at the store, she observed defendant standing in the corner. Martinez spoke to the store owner, who told her that defendant had entered the store with a beer bottle and had refused to leave. Defendant had then dropped the bottle and it shattered on the floor. The broken glass had already been swept up by store employees, but Martinez saw that the floor was wet.

Martinez spoke to defendant. He appeared to be intoxicated. Defendant was slurring his words, his eyes were bloodshot and he was swaying. Martinez smelled alcohol on his breath.

Martinez asked defendant for identification, but he said that he did not have any. He was able to provide Martinez with his name and a birth date,*fn1 but he could not provide his social security number. He also denied having a home address or a telephone number.

Martinez observed a bulge, which appeared to be a wallet, in defendant's rear pants pocket. Martinez testified that, on service calls such as this one, she will attempt to locate the citizen's identification. Here, her intent was also to use the identification to issue defendant a summons for having an open container of alcohol in violation of a municipal ordinance. If the identification was not located, Martinez testified that she intended to arrest defendant and take him to headquarters to be fingerprinted in order to learn his identity. However, Martinez also acknowledged that she had the discretion not to issue the citation and that she could have simply removed defendant from the premises.

Martinez patted the outside of defendant's pocket to see if the bulge was a wallet. She felt a round, hard object. Based upon her training and experience, Martinez believed that the object was a tied-off plastic bag containing illegal drugs. She reached into the pocket and found a plastic bag of suspected cocaine and a stack of folded paper napkins. Martinez arrested defendant. As he was being transported to the police station, defendant provided his correct birth date and social security number.

The motion court denied defendant's motion to suppress, finding that Martinez had probable cause to arrest defendant for a number of disorderly persons offenses at the time she searched his pocket. The court found that defendant could have been charged with hindering apprehension, for providing Martinez with false information, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(4),*fn2 disorderly conduct, for breaking a beer bottle in the store, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2(a)(2), or defiant trespass, for refusing to leave the store, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3(b). Because probable cause existed to arrest defendant, the motion court held that the search was incident to that arrest and, therefore, proper.

II.

On appeal, defendant raises the following arguments for our consideration:

I. THE SEARCH BY OFFICER MARTINEZ WAS NOT A VALID SEARCH INCIDENT TO ARREST.

II. THE EVIDENCE MUST BE SUPPRESSED WHERE THE OFFICER DID NOT HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO ARREST OR SEARCH MR. VASQUEZ FOR AN ORDINANCE VIOLATION.

After reviewing the record, we are satisfied that the Law Division properly denied the motion to suppress.

"[A]n appellate court reviewing a motion to suppress must uphold the factual findings underlying the motion court's decision as long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record." State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). A motion court's findings of fact may be disturbed only when "they are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'" Id. at 244. There is clearly sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the motion court's findings of fact surrounding the search.

The motion court determined that, based upon these facts, probable cause existed to arrest defendant for a disorderly persons offense and, therefore, the search was proper because it was incident to that arrest. We do not, however, have to address the issue of whether the court's legal rationale for upholding the search on this basis was correct because there was a more direct reason for upholding the search under the circumstances of this case. See State v. Maples, 346 N.J. Super. 408, 417 (App. Div. 2002) (holding that, because an appeal is taken from a trial court's ruling rather than the reasons for the ruling, an appellate court may rely on grounds other than those upon which the trial court relied).

We are satisfied that the "community caretaker doctrine" provides a more accurate and fact-specific basis upon which to justify the warrantless search. In Cady v. Dombrowski, the United States Supreme Court held that an exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement exists when a police officer is engaged in "community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S. Ct. 2523, 2428, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706, 715 (1973). As the New Jersey Supreme Court has observed:

More specifically, the community caretaker doctrine recognizes that the police often are called on to perform dual roles. One commenter has noted:

Law enforcement officers generally act pursuant to either law enforcement or community caretaking objectives. The difference between the two stems from the officers' underlying motives. The law enforcement function includes conduct that is designed to detect or solve a specific crime, such as making arrests, interrogating suspects, and searching for evidence. Community caretaking, on the other hand, is based on a service notion that police serve to ensure the safety and welfare of the citizenry at large. [State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264, 276 (2004) (quoting John F. Decker, Emergency Circumstances, Police Responses, and Fourth Amendment Restrictions, 89 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 433, 445 (1999)).]

"[T]he relevant question in community caretaking situations focuses not on the compelling need for immediate action or the time needed to secure a warrant, but instead on the objective reasonableness of the police action in executing their service function." State v. Kaltner, 420 N.J. Super. 524, 541 (App. Div.), leave to appeal granted, 208 N.J. 333 (2011). When a search is justified under the community caretaking exception, "courts must balance the nature of the intrusion necessary to handle the perceived threat to the community caretaking concern, the seriousness of the underlying harm to be averted, and the relative importance of the community caretaking concern." Id. at 542.

Police officers have a statutory responsibility to provide assistance to intoxicated persons who they encounter in the community. In pertinent part, N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16 provides that "[a]ny person who is intoxicated in a public place may be assisted to his residence or to an intoxication treatment center or other facility by a police officer . . . ." If the officer "has reason to believe" that the intoxicated person "is incapacitated," the officer must assist him or her to an intoxication treatment center or other facility. Ibid.

When Martinez encountered defendant, he appeared intoxicated. He was slurring his words, his eyes were bloodshot and he was swaying. He was not able to provide his address. Because of defendant's condition, Martinez had a statutory obligation to provide assistance to him.

In order to provide this required assistance, Martinez needed to obtain defendant's identification to determine where he lived since, if he was not incapacitated, she could have taken him home. See N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16. The compelling need to assist an intoxicated person in a public place clearly outweighed the minor intrusion upon defendant by the pat down of his pocket to attempt to locate the identification needed to assist him.

That Martinez may have had a different subjective intent in conducting the pat down, because she also wanted to give defendant an open container citation, is of no moment. It is the "objective reasonableness" of Martinez's intent in seeking the identification that controls. See Kaltner, supra, 420 N.J. Super. at 541. N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16 required that Martinez not leave defendant once she determined that he was intoxicated. She was duty bound to assist him and her actions were objectively and reasonably designed to do so.

Because the search was directly authorized by the community caretaking doctrine, we need not determine whether the search may have also been justified as incident to defendant's arrest.

Affirmed.


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