On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 07-10-1784.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Baxter.
Following the entry of a guilty plea to the second-degree crime of committing a narcotics distribution offense while possessing a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4.1, defendant Steven L. Hall appeals the denial of his motion to suppress the handgun found in his vehicle. We concur in the judge's determination that the seizure of the handgun was lawful pursuant to the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. We affirm.
On August 17, 2007, New Brunswick Police Officer Miguel Chang received information from a known confidential informant that a black male named Steven would soon be arriving at the intersection of Handy and Joyce Kilmer Streets to drop off narcotics. The informant described "Steven" as having "really short hair, almost bald looking, with a goatee" and wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. The informant also told Officer Chang that Steven would be driving a silver Chrysler.
Chang considered the informant extremely reliable, as the informant had provided information in the past that led to six separate narcotics convictions. Acting upon the informant's tip, Chang and Investigator Stopko set up surveillance at the intersection of Handy and Joyce Kilmer. Less than thirty minutes later, a silver Chrysler approached the intersection, parked for a few minutes and then drove away. Officer Chang followed the Chrysler and clocked its speed at thirty-five miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone. Chang, in his unmarked vehicle, activated his lights and stopped the Chrysler.
The two officers exited their vehicle, with Officer Chang approaching the driver's side and Investigator Stopko approaching the passenger side of the Chrysler. The officers directed the driver, defendant, to provide his motor vehicle credentials. Defendant complied.
According to the testimony Officer Chang provided at the suppression hearing, Investigator Stopko informed Chang that when he, Stopko, peered into the vehicle during the motor vehicle stop, "he observed a clear, white bag, in the area of the center console and the passenger side seat on the floor. Sort of wedged between." The two officers returned to defendant's vehicle, ordered him out of the car, arrested him and placed him in their police vehicle. At that point, Chang "went to the passenger side, and retrieved the narcotics."
Chang testified that when he bent over to seize the bag of narcotics, he "s[aw] a black handle of a firearm, towards the underneath part of the passenger seat." He seized the gun and the narcotics, explaining that "when I looked underneath the passenger-side seat, I saw the handle part of the black handgun. . . . Like towards the rear of underneath the passenger-side seat."
Defendant testified at the suppression hearing, asserting that the police must have "planted" the cocaine and the gun in his car because he had never seen the drugs or gun before.
In a written decision issued on June 9, 2008, the judge ruled that based upon the reliable information provided by the confidential informant, the police had sufficient probable cause to initiate the vehicle stop and search the vehicle. She also found that the warrantless seizure of the cocaine and the handgun were justified by two exceptions to the warrant requirement, plain view and exigent circumstances. The judge ...