On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-9370-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Baxter and Carchman.
This is an appeal from the dismissal of the State of New Jersey's forfeiture complaint to recover $569,950, a 1996 Freightliner Tractor and a 2000 Wabash National Trailer. Defendant Alexei Gonzalez*fn1 cross-appeals, challenging the trial judge's decision to deny defendant's motion for summary judgment. We affirm.
This forfeiture action arose as a result of a State Police investigation of defendant based on information provided by a confidential informant. The underlying allegations were that defendant had participated in a drug transaction and was in possession of substantial funds as a result. In addition, the informant purportedly reported that there was a robbery threat to defendant as a result of his possession of the funds.
Based on the information, the State Police confronted defendant and searched his room at a Hampton Inn in Woodbridge. At that location, the police recovered the property subject to the forfeiture, namely, the funds, as well as the tractor and the trailer, which were parked outside.
Critical to the judge's dismissal of the forfeiture complaint in the Law Division was an earlier decision related to criminal charges lodged against defendant for money laundering, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-5a, involving the funds in dispute here. In the criminal proceeding, the trial judge, on defendant's motion to suppress evidence, concluded that the hotel room search violated defendant's constitutional rights and found "the motion to suppress the currency, the suitcase*fn2 and other items that were seized in the room must be granted." He added that evidence obtained by the police as a consequence of the unconstitutional search would also be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." He found that defendant's alleged "consent" was not valid. He noted that the temporal proximity between the illegal search and the challenged evidence is great.
The fact that the defendant was confronted with the suitcase having been seized and asked, therefore, consent, all of that surely could never have happened and was derived from the initial unlawful entry into the room and the unlawful conduct of the police in conducting the so called protective sweep . . . . [I]t's not really possible to separate out the subsequent search of the suitcase or statements made by defendant because were it not for the initial unreasonable conduct there would have been nothing to confront the defendant with there would have been nothing to ask him to consent to the search.
The suppression of this evidence led to the dismissal of the indictment. Nevertheless, the State pressed forward with the forfeiture.
Following the completion of discovery in this proceeding, which included defendant's deposition, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. The motions were denied, and the judge conducted a plenary hearing on the forfeiture complaint.
At the hearing, defendant indicated that he owned a trucking company and owned two trailers and tractors. Defendant's tax returns were produced, indicating that he earned $2,493 in income in 2006 and $442,830 in 2007, based on revenues exceeding $600,000 from the trucking company, with additional partial year earnings for 2008 of $43,928.66 based on revenues of $266,484.66. When asked to produce business records, defendant explained that he had "lost everything," including his home and all of his records while he was incarcerated for a period of one and one-half years.
Defendant explained that his purpose in coming to New Jersey was to buy another trucking business from an individual only identified as "Anna." The new business had seven trucks and tractors. He intended to pay approximately $250,000 to $300,000 and to use the balance of the cash for, in essence, "working capital."
The State's presentation in support of the forfeiture was limited. The State produced a witness to discuss a conversation she had with a Florida official regarding the administration of the road test in English in Florida as well as administration of the written test both in English and Spanish. ...