On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at New Jersey Supreme Court SC-A7010StatevBland_Minitee.pdf
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)
State v. Alnesha Minitee/State v. Darnell Bland (A-70/71-10) (066771)
Argued January 17, 2012 -- Decided June 14, 2012
JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned), writing for a majority of the Court.
The Court considers whether, in the circumstances of this case, evidence obtained from a warrantless vehicle search conducted after the vehicle was towed to police headquarters should be suppressed.
On January 24, 2003, at approximately 10:30 p.m., a Fort Lee Police Department officer responded to a report that an armed robbery was in progress at KOA Spa, very close to the officer's location. When the officer arrived at the scene, individuals pointed out a red SUV blocked by traffic at a light and stated that the occupants were armed and had just robbed the spa. Approaching the SUV, the officer ordered the occupants to get out of the vehicle. A man later identified as defendant Darnell Bland got out of a rear door holding a purse and a gun and fled on foot. He was not apprehended until months later. The SUV drove away, and the officer radioed to dispatch the route the SUV was taking and the direction in which Bland had run. Other officers responded, and one of them spotted the SUV and followed it. When the officer caught up to the SUV, which was stopped at the end of a dead-end street, Liakesha Jones and defendant Alnesha Minitee were standing next to the vehicle. They claimed they were victims of a carjacking by two males who had fled on foot. The driver's side door of the SUV was open, and an officer saw two rolls of duct tape in the vehicle. The officer knew that the robbery victims had been tied up with duct tape. Based on the observation of the duct tape and the tracking of the SUV from the immediate vicinity of the robbery, the officers took Minitee and Jones to police headquarters for questioning and arranged for the SUV to be towed. When the SUV reached police headquarters, it was placed in a secure area.
After some period of time, members of the Bergen County Sheriff's Office's Bureau of Criminal Investigation arrived at headquarters and searched the SUV. They did not obtain a search warrant before they conducted the search. The search turned up pages of classified ads for massage parlors in the area, the names of which had been marked with either an asterisk, a "no," or "next"; rolls of duct tape and electrical tape; a videotape of a robbery of an East Brunswick massage parlor; and other evidence. The record does not reveal the time the SUV was searched, but multiple pursuits were in progress at the time, including one involving a K-9 unit searching for the men who had fled on foot. One of the men, Almustafa Baldwin, was found two miles away in another municipality. While Baldwin was being processed at police headquarters, he told the officers that he had discarded a gun after the robbery. Most of the members of the Fort Lee Police Department were deployed to search for the weapon. They were joined by police from a neighboring municipality and members of the Port Authority Police Department. The officers searched through the night without success, and a resident called police the next morning to report that he had discovered a gun next to his garbage can. In the early morning hours after the robbery, several sites were being processed by officers: the spa, the site where the gun and purse had been discarded by defendant Bland; the site where a jacket discarded by one of the fleeing robbers was discovered; and the site where the SUV came to a halt.
After Minitee and Bland were charged with a series of robberies that took place in Middlesex, Essex and Bergen Counties, the defense filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the warrantless search of the SUV. The trial court, satisfied that there was a confluence of probable cause and exigency, found no basis to suppress the evidence. Bland entered a negotiated plea of guilty to one count of first-degree robbery. Minitee proceeded to trial and was convicted of five counts of first-degree robbery.
The Appellate Division reversed the trial court's ruling denying suppression, 415 N.J. Super. 475 (App. Div. 2010). The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification. 205 N.J. 81 (2011).
HELD: Under the circumstances of this case, the trial court correctly denied the defendants' motion to suppress because the warrantless search of the SUV that was involved in the robbery fit within the scope of the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement.
1. The United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution guarantee an individual's right to be secure against unreasonable searches or seizures. A search conducted without a warrant is presumed to be invalid. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement, and the State bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the credible evidence that one of the exceptions applies. Only two exceptions are pertinent to this matter-the search incident to arrest exception and the automobile exception. With regard to search incident to arrest, when police place an individual under arrest, they may search his person and the area within his immediate grasp. In the automobile context, New Jersey restricts the scope of the search to the area from which an individual may seize a weapon or destroy evidence. The search in this case cannot be sustained as one incident to Minitee's arrest. It can only withstand challenge if its circumstances bring it within the scope of the automobile exception. (pp. 10-13)
2. The New Jersey Constitution provides citizens with greater protections than its federal counterpart. Under New Jersey law, three factors are considered before applying the automobile exception to the warrant requirement: 1) whether the stop was unplanned and unforeseen--the police must have no advance knowledge of the events to unfold so that they cannot create the exigency; 2) whether police had probable cause to believe the automobile contained evidence of criminality; and 3) whether exigent circumstances made it impractical to obtain a warrant. (pp. 13-16)
3. The Appellate Division based its conclusion that exigent circumstances were lacking in this case on State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009), which discussed facts that can contribute to the presence of exigent circumstances, such as the time of day, location of the stop, unfolding events establishing probable cause, whether it would be safe to leave the car unguarded, and others. However, the discussion in Pena-Flores was not intended to provide an exhaustive list and was focused on the facts of that case. In this case, other facts demonstrate that police were confronted with exigent circumstances. These include an armed robbery, at least two perpetrators on the run who were possibly armed, a search for them that spanned several municipalities, and an attempt to find a discarded weapon before a bystander was injured or it was taken and hidden for future criminal activity. Additionally, the site where the SUV came to rest was poorly lit and not amenable to a thorough search, and the officers had no assurance that the perpetrators on the run were not in the vicinity and able to fire at them. Because the facts of Pena-Flores are distinguishable from this matter, its legal principles are not dispositive of this case. (pp. 16-18)
4. State v. Martin, 87 N.J. 561 (1981), is instructive. In Martin, police located a car involved in a robbery and could see in the car a glove that matched the description of a glove worn by one of the robbers. The police had the car towed to the station and searched it without a warrant. The Court upheld the search, explaining that the suspected robbers were at large, lighting where the car was discovered was dim, exigency was heightened by the fact that police were actively involved in an ongoing investigation shortly after the robbery and near to where it occurred, and there was an urgent need to ascertain whether the car contained evidence of the armed robbery before the suspects could leave the area or destroy or dispose of other evidence. (pp. 18-19)
5. In this case, it is not dispositive that the vehicle had been at police headquarters for some time before it was searched. The difficulties the officers faced were exacerbated by the multiple sites that had to be examined for clues, the critical need to locate the handgun, and the fact that events were unfolding close to midnight in the dead of winter. The officers' actions were reasonable under the circumstances. (pp. 19-20)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the defendants' convictions are REINSTATED.
JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, is of the view that because three hours or more separated the seizure of the SUV and its search and no effort was made to secure even a telephonic warrant, the State did not establish that it was impractical to secure a warrant due to an urgent, immediate need to conduct a search. He agrees with the Appellate Division that the State failed to demonstrate exigent circumstances supporting a bypass of the warrant requirement.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, HOENS, and PATTERSON join in JUDGE WEFING's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, dissenting opinion.
JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) delivered the opinion of the Court.
Following the trial court's denial of defendants' motion to suppress, defendant Bland entered a negotiated plea of guilty to one count of first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. Defendant Minitee elected to proceed to trial and was convicted of five counts of first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. Defendants appealed, and the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court erred when it denied defendants' suppression motion and, as a result, vacated defendants' convictions. State v. Minitee, 415 N.J. Super. 475, 478 (App. Div. 2010). We granted both the State's petition for certification, 205 N.J. 81 (2011), and the motion of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey ("Association") to appear as amicus curiae. Because we are satisfied that the Appellate Division erred in its analysis and conclusion, we reverse and reinstate defendants' convictions.
Defendants were charged with a series of robberies that took place in Middlesex, Essex, and Bergen Counties. Defendant Minitee was apprehended almost immediately after the Bergen County incident, while defendant Bland was arrested several months later when one of the victims of the Bergen County crime identified his picture in a photo array. When Minitee was arrested, she was standing next to a red SUV that the police had followed from the robbery scene. The search of that vehicle produced evidence linking the parties to the series of robberies. Defendants Bland and Minitee both moved to suppress the results of that search but were unsuccessful. At the trial of defendant Minitee, which led to her conviction, the State introduced evidence that was obtained during the search of the SUV.
We thus turn to the facts surrounding Minitee's arrest and the subsequent search of the SUV. Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on the evening of January 24, 2003, Police Officer Alejandro Lorenzo of the Fort Lee Police Department heard on his police radio that an armed robbery was in progress at KOA Spa, which was located right around the corner from where he was having a meal break. He rushed to the scene and found a group of people standing outside, several of whom pointed out a red SUV stopped in traffic at a light. They yelled out to Lorenzo that the occupants of the SUV were armed and had "just robbed the place." The driver of the SUV was trying to squeeze the vehicle around the surrounding traffic; Lorenzo drew his weapon and ordered the occupants in the SUV to get out. After repeating his order several times, one man, later identified as defendant Bland, got out of a rear door of the vehicle, holding a purse and a gun. Officer Lorenzo ordered him to drop both, and he did so; Lorenzo then ordered him to get on his knees on the sidewalk. Bland moved as if to comply and then fled on foot.
Lorenzo made no attempt to follow Bland but continued his focus on the SUV. He repeated his order to get out to those remaining in the SUV, but the traffic light turned green and the vehicle began to drive away. Lorenzo ran after it a short distance and then radioed in to dispatch the route that the SUV was taking as well as the direction in which Bland had run.
Other members of the Fort Lee Police Department, including Police Officer Michael Gerardo, heard Lorenzo's broadcast. Gerardo spotted the SUV and followed it. Gerardo did not turn on his lights and siren because he did not want to alert the driver to his presence. The route the SUV took led to Beverly Hills Road, which was a dead-end street. When Gerardo arrived at the stopped SUV, Minitee and Liakesha Jones were standing next to the vehicle. The women told Gerardo they were the victims of a carjacking. Gerardo nonetheless ordered them to lay on the ground, and he waited for backup officers, who arrived shortly thereafter. Minitee told the police that they had been carjacked by two black males who had fled on foot when the car reached the end of the dead-end street.
The driver's-side door of the SUV was open, and one of the backup officers who had arrived on the scene, Detective Howard Ginsburg, looked into the vehicle. He saw, in plain view, two rolls of duct tape on the rear passenger seat and floor. The officers at the scene knew from radio transmissions that the victims of the robbery had been tied up with duct tape. From a motor vehicle check, the officers learned that Minitee was the registered owner of the SUV. Based on Ginsburg's observation of the duct tape and Gerardo's tracking of the SUV from the immediate vicinity of ...