October 26, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
MAURICE L. INMAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 09-02-0266.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 8, 2012
Before Judges Reisner and Hayden.
Following the denial of his motion to suppress evidence, defendant Maurice L. Inman pled guilty to first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1, and also entered pleas on two other unrelated indictments. The trial judge sentenced him on the robbery charge to twelve years imprisonment, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, with the sentences for the crimes involved in two other guilty pleas to run concurrent to the robbery.
On appeal, defendant raises the following contentions for our consideration:
POINT I: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE BECAUSE THE POLICE LACKED THE REASONABLE AND ARTICULABLE SUSPICION NECESSARY TO JUSTIFY THE MOTOR VEHICLE STOP.
POINT II: BECAUSE THE POLICE DID NOT ACT IN GOOD FAITH WHEN THEY STOPPED THE TAXICAB AND ARRESTED THE DEFENDANT, THE EVIDENCE HE DROPPED DURING AN ATTEMPTED FLIGHT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUPPRESSED.
A. The Exclusionary Rule Requires the Suppression of the Evidence.
B. Defendant's Attempt to Flee from the Officers was Not Sufficiently Attenuated from the Taint of the Police Conduct to Constitute an Intervening Event.
C. The Items That the Defendant Discarded During the Pursuit Were Not Abandoned.
Having considered defendant's arguments in light of the applicable legal principles, we affirm.
We discern the following facts from the record of the motion to suppress. At approximately 11:52 p.m. on September 21, 2008, Officer Anthony D'Onofrio of the Sayreville Police Department received a radio dispatch reporting an armed robbery at a motel on Route 35 North. A witness described the perpetrator as a heavy-set black male wearing baggy clothes and a blue shirt with a floral pattern. Officer D'Onofrio arrived at the crime scene only one and a half minutes after receiving the dispatch and saw a yellow taxicab approaching from the opposite direction about two hundred yards from the motel. No other vehicles or people were traveling the quiet back road at the time. As the vehicles passed each other, Officer D'Onofrio peered in the front window of the cab and saw a heavy-set black male in a white t-shirt, later identified as defendant, sitting in the back rear passenger seat. The officer believed the passenger fit the description of the suspect and stopped the cab.
Because the suspect was reported to be armed, Officer D'Onofrio approached the cab with his weapon drawn. He instructed defendant to raise his hands and exit the cab. Instead of complying, defendant reached down to the floor of the cab. The officer opened the rear passenger side door and saw a rolled up sweatshirt on the floor of the cab. By this time, other officers had arrived on the scene and ordered defendant to exit with his hands raised. Defendant got out, but did not raise his hands, and quickly ran into a nearby wooded area. As the officers chased defendant, ordering him to halt, defendant reached into his pockets and tossed out money and papers, which the police later recovered. Defendant hid in the bushes but eventually complied with the officers' commands, and was taken into custody. The police recovered a handgun from the wooded area where defendant was hiding.
On February 18, 2009, a grand jury returned an indictment against defendant concerning this incident. The grand jury charged him with first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b; second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a; fourth-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4); third-degree resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a; and third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3b(4).
Defendant moved to suppress the money, clothing, and weapon seized, claiming they were the product of an illegal motor vehicle stop. The judge denied the motion, finding that Officer D'Onofrio's credible testimony established that he had a reasonable and articulable suspicion justifying the stop of the vehicle. The judge found the basis for the suspicion was that the passenger of the cab fit the description of the suspect just provided by the dispatcher, and the cab was located in close proximity to the crime scene where no other vehicles traveled. The judge further opined that defendant's conduct following the stop led to heightened suspicion and validated the officers' conduct thereafter.
Our review of a trial judge's decision on a suppression motion is deferential. State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009). In reviewing a motion to suppress evidence, we "must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record." State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (internal citations omitted). On the other hand, as appellate review of the trial court's legal conclusion is plenary, we need not defer to the trial court's decisions when a question of law is at stake. State v. Goodman, 415 N.J. Super. 210, 225 (App. Div. 2010), certif. denied, 205 N.J. 78 (2011).
The Fourth Amendment guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Even a brief limited detention of a person, such as during an automobile stop, is a seizure within the meaning of this provision. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 1772, 135 L. Ed. 2d 89, 95 (1996) (citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S. Ct. 1391, 1396, 59 L. Ed. 2d 660, 667 (1979)).
However, police may make an investigatory stop if it is based upon "specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity." State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117, 126 (2002) (internal citations omitted). The permissible length of the stop and the extent of the inquiry depend upon whether, "based on the totality of the circumstances, the officer had a reasonable and particularized suspicion to believe that an individual has just engaged in, or was about to engage in, criminal activity." State v. Stovall, 170 N.J. 346, 356 (2002) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1880, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 906 (1968)); see also State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 504 (1986). This determination requires "a sensitive appraisal of the circumstances in each case." State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 27 (2004) (quoting Davis, supra, 104 N.J. at 505).
Applying these principles to the facts in this case, we are satisfied that the trial judge's finding that the police had sufficient grounds to make an investigatory stop is supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. We agree that several specific factors, including the proximity to the crime scene, the lack of other vehicles or people on the road, and the presence of a heavy-set man leaving the area in a cab, led the police to the reasonable suspicion that defendant had just engaged in criminal activity. While "defendant's actions might have some speculative innocent explanation, they also are reasonably consistent with illegal activity" so as to give the officer reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop. State v. Citarella, 154 N.J. 272, 280-81 (1998) (internal citations omitted). Thus, the police were justified in making a brief stop to inquire in order to confirm or allay their suspicion. We also agree with the trial judge that defendant's actions thereafter, not getting out of the cab and then fleeing, heightened their suspicion and justified their subsequent actions.
The State further argues that, regardless of whether the initial stop was reasonable, defendant's subsequent resistance and flight constituted an intervening circumstance that attenuated any conceivable taint from the original police encounter. When the connection between unlawful police activity and the discovery of evidence is sufficiently attenuated, seizure of that evidence may be justified by the intervening circumstances. State v. Williams, 192 N.J. 1, 14-18 (2007); State v. Crawley, 187 N.J. 440, 450-52 (2006). In Williams, the defendant's flight from an unconstitutional investigatory stop was an intervening act that attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the subsequent discovery of a weapon. The Court established a three-part test: "[i]n evaluating whether evidence is sufficiently attenuated from the constitutional violation, we look at three factors: (1) the temporal proximity between the illegal conduct and the challenged evidence; (2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the flagrancy and purpose of the police misconduct." Williams, supra, 192 N.J. at 15 (internal citations omitted).
We conclude defendant's resistance and flight were intervening circumstances that attenuated any possible taint from the stop. While the discovery of evidence was close in time to the stop, temporal proximity is the least weighty of the three factors. Id. at 15-16. Moreover, there is no basis in the record to conclude that the officers' conduct was flagrant or in bad faith as they were acting on the report of an armed robbery that had just occurred at that location.
We are satisfied that defendant's remaining arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).
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