On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment Nos. 10-06-0864 and 10-06-0869.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Ostrer.
In this appeal, defendant, John Laurore, seeks reversal of the trial court order denying his motion to suppress a handgun seized from his waistband. After the court denied his motion, defendant pled guilty to fourth-degree possession of a defaced firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-9(e), and second-degree possession of a weapon by a previously convicted person, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b. Defendant was sentenced to a five-year prison term with a mandatory five-year parole ineligibility period for the second-degree certain persons conviction and an eighteen-month prison term for the fourth-degree defaced weapon conviction, to be served concurrently. We affirm.
Three witnesses testified at the suppression hearing: Sergeant John Quick, and Detectives Joshua Alexander and Anthony Abode. The events leading to the seizure occurred during the early morning hours of March 25, 2010, in New Brunswick, where Sergeant Quick and Detective Alexander of the New Brunswick Police Anti-Crime Unit observed a brown Cadillac, driven by defendant, with two other occupants roll through a stop sign and turn left onto George Street. The officers, who were traveling in a unmarked Dodge, turned left behind the Cadillac, which proceeded toward Albany Street and made a left turn onto Albany, despite clearly marked signs prohibiting a left turn. The vehicle stopped approximately one block further on Albany, at its intersection with Easton Avenue, and the rear passenger, whom the officers recognized as drug-dealer Mark Smith, exited the vehicle and walked across the street toward Maritas Cantina, a local bar and restaurant. At that point, the officers activated their emergency lights and siren.
The Cadillac pulled to the side briefly and then proceeded to travel down Albany towards Joyce Kilmer Avenue, and made a left onto French Street. Sergeant Quick called for back-up, advising the dispatcher that the vehicle may not be stopping. Defendant finally came to a stop "under a very dark train bridge, and in an area where, less that  feet [away], there had been several shootings [and] large disturbances[.]"
Once the Cadillac came to a stop, the officers got out of their patrol car and approached the vehicle. The two remaining occupants were unknown to the officers. Detective Alexander approached the passenger side and directed his attention to the woman seated there. Sergeant Quick approached the driver's side and observed that defendant already had his credentials, which were in his left hand, out the window. His hand was visibly shaking. Sergeant Quick also observed a bag of "blend," which he explained is a product that may be mixed with tobacco products or marijuana, to disguise the marijuana smell, in the rear of the vehicle and an opened bottle of wine on the passenger side of the vehicle. Sergeant Quick testified that defendant would not make eye contact with him and that the aroma of burnt marijuana emanated from the vehicle.
At that point, he asked defendant to step out of the vehicle, a request with which defendant complied. Sergeant Quick, however, testified defendant exited the vehicle in a strange manner, which "raised [his] suspicions, that it wasn't a normal way for someone to exit a vehicle." The sergeant demonstrated the movement for the court and explained:
[Defendant] steps from the vehicle, takes a step back, closes the door. His hand is very close to his side. With his back towards [the officer], he walks to the rear of the car. His arm is not swinging. The motion of his hands, he's walking as though he didn't want his jacket to open or move.
Defendant's strange exit, "coupled with the aroma of the marijuana . . . [and defendant's] inability to face [the officer] while he was talking to [him,]" led the sergeant to suspect defendant may be concealing something, "more of a gun than drugs[,]" on his person.
Sergeant Quick asked defendant to place his hands on the back of the vehicle. Defendant complied. Sergeant Quick intended to perform a pat-down, but as the officer took a step toward him, defendant removed his hands from the trunk and reached toward the right side of his jacket. Detectives Abode and Maimone, who had arrived on the scene as back-up before defendant exited the vehicle and who were positioned behind defendant's vehicle, immediately grabbed defendant. Detective Abode went immediately to the location where defendant was reaching and recovered a nine millimeter handgun with ten rounds of hollow-point ammunition.
The female passenger remained in the vehicle throughout the encounter and was facing forward throughout the entire time. After defendant was ...