August 27, 2013
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
PAUL DOBISON, Defendant-Appellant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued August 21, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Municipal Appeal No. 0071-11.
Jerry H. Steiner argued the cause for appellant (Cooper Levenson April Niedelman & Wagenheim, P.A., attorneys; Fredric L. Shenkman, on the briefs).
Courtney M. Cittadini, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (James P. McClain, Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor, attorney; Ms. Cittadini, on the brief).
Before Judges Waugh and Haas.
Defendant Paul Dobison appeals the Law Division's April 18, 2012 denial of his motion to suppress evidence in connection with a motor vehicle stop. We affirm.
We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal.
On March 25, 2011, Atlantic County Sheriff's Officer Jay Sheets ran a random computer search on the license plate of a vehicle on Route 50 in Weymouth Township. The vehicle was a Chevrolet pickup truck owned and operated by Dobison. There was nothing unusual about the truck or the driver that prompted Sheets to run the license plate.
The computer screen in Sheets' vehicle indicated a "hit" and then "suspended." Without looking further by scrolling down on the screen, Sheets activated his emergency lights and eventually stopped Dobison. Sheets subsequently issued Dobison summonses for driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96.
Had Sheets scrolled down the screen, he would have seen that it was only Dobison's commercial driver's license that had been suspended. At the time, Dobison was not driving a vehicle with commercial plates, and so was not in violation of that suspension.
Dobison moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the stop, arguing that Sheets had no basis to stop him at the time and that he should have completed looking at the search result before initiating the stop. The municipal judge denied the motion following a trial on September 14. Dobison then entered a conditional plea of guilty to the DWI.
Dobison appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Law Division. Following a trial de novo on the municipal court record, held on April 4, 2012, the trial judge denied the motion to dismiss. An implementing order was entered on April 18. This appeal followed.
On appeal, Dobison argues that Sheets acted unreasonably in making the stop without verifying the nature of the suspension by reading the rest of the information available on his in-vehicle computer.
Our role in an appeal such as this is limited, in that we "consider only the action of the Law Division and not that of the municipal court." State v. Oliveri, 336 N.J.Super. 244, 251 (App. Div. 2001) (citing State v. Joas, 34 N.J. 179, 184 (1961)). The Law Division determination is de novo on the record from the municipal court. R. 3:23-8(a). We are ordinarily limited to determining whether the Law Division's de novo findings "could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). In addition, under the two-court rule, only "a very obvious and exceptional showing of error" will support setting aside "concurrent findings of facts and credibility determinations made by" the Law Division and the municipal court. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999). Nevertheless, our review of purely legal issues is plenary. State v. Goodman, 415 N.J.Super. 210, 225 (App. Div. 2010), certif. denied, 205 N.J. 78 (2011).
Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, "[a] warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657, 664 (2000) (citing State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211, 230 (1981)). The same is true of the warrantless seizure of a person or property. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19-21, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1879-80, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, 905-06 (1968) (seizure of a person); State v. Hempele, 120 N.J. 182, 218-19 (1990) (seizure of property).
The seizure of a person occurs in a police encounter if the facts objectively indicate that "the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter." State v. Tucker, 136 N.J. 158, 166 (1994) (quoting Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 439, 111 S.Ct. 2382, 2389, 115 L.Ed.2d 389, 402 (1991)) (internal quotation mark omitted). In applying that test, our courts implement the constitutional guarantee to protect the "reasonable expectations of citizens to be 'secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects . . . .'" Id. at 165 (quoting N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7).
An investigatory stop, also known as a Terry stop, is characterized by a detention in which the person approached by the police officer would not reasonably feel free to leave, even though the encounter falls short of a formal arrest. State v. Stovall, 170 N.J. 346, 355-56 (2002); see also Terry, supra, 392 U.S. at 19, 88 S.Ct. at 1878-79, 20 L.Ed.2d at 904.
The Terry exception to the warrant requirement permits a police officer to detain an individual for a brief period, if that stop is "based on '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) (quoting Terry, supra, 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1880, 20 L.Ed.2d at 906). Under this well-established standard, "[a]n investigatory stop is valid only if the officer has a 'particularized suspicion' based upon an objective observation that the person stopped has been [engaged] or is about to engage in criminal wrongdoing." State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 504 (1986).
To satisfy constitutional safeguards, a motor vehicle stop "must be based on reasonable and articulable suspicion that an offense, including a minor traffic offense, has been or is being committed." State v. Amelio, 197 N.J. 207, 211 (2008) (quoting State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632, 639-40, modified, 174 N.J. 351 (2002)), cert. denied, 556 U.S. 1237, 129 S.Ct. 2402, 173 L.Ed.2d 1297 (2009). The stop must reflect "some minimal level of objective justification, " and cannot be justified only by an officer's "inarticulate hunches" or "subjective good faith." Id. at 211-12 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). However, an officer "is entitled to draw" "reasonable inferences" based on his or her experience, and a judge should weigh such inferences in assessing whether the officer acted reasonably. Id. at 212. In summary, to establish that a stop was constitutional, "the officer 'must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the] intrusion.'" Ibid. (alteration in original) (quoting State v. Arthur, 149 N.J. 1, 8 (1997)).
On a motion to suppress, the State is not required to prove that "it could convict the driver of the motor-vehicle offense" that was the basis for the stop to establish the lawfulness of the stop. State v. Williamson, 138 N.J. 302, 304 (1994). "[I]t is inconsequential that the defendant was ultimately acquitted of the motor vehicle violation. The issue is whether the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a violation before the stop." State v. Heisler, 422 N.J.Super. 399, 413 (App. Div. 2011).
As we held in State v. Pitcher, 379 N.J.Super. 308, 314-15 (App. Div. 2005), certif. denied, 186 N.J. 242 (2006), random license plate checks are generally permissible, and reasonable suspicion that the driver's license has been suspended can provide a sufficient basis for a motor vehicle stop. We reject Dobison's argument, relying on State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39 (2011), that the evidence resulting from the stop should be suppressed because Sheets failed to peruse the entire computer report prior to initiating the stop. The Law Division judge accepted Sheets' testimony that he needed to act quickly once he saw that there was a suspension in order to stop Dobison at a safe location and that, after he initiated the stop, Dobison gained speed and was operating his vehicle in an erratic manner. We see no error in the judge's conclusion that those factors explained Sheets' failure to complete his examination of the computer report and that Sheets had the required particularized suspicion to effectuate the stop at the time. Consequently, we affirm the denial of the motion to suppress.