NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted July 16, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 11-10-2323.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Alicia J. Hubbard, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the brief).
Warren K. Faulk, Camden County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Patrick D. Isbill, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).
Before Judges Ostrer and Hayden.
After the court denied his suppression motion, defendant entered a plea of guilty to a single count accusation charging him with third-degree receiving stolen property, a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a. As part of the plea agreement, the State dismissed an indictment that charged defendant with second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b, and second-degree certain person not to possess a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b. In accord with the plea agreement, the court sentenced defendant to four years of non-custodial probation, and imposed mandatory fees and penalties.
Defendant now appeals from the denial of his motion to suppress the seizure of the firearm, a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson handgun. We reverse.
The sole witness at the suppression hearing was New Jersey State Police Trooper William Jacobs. He testified that the firearm was seized in the course of his response to a motor vehicle accident on Interstate 295. When he arrived at the accident scene on March 22, 2009, he found an overturned Buick in the median. The vehicle was unoccupied. Defendant, the driver, was already receiving treatment from emergency medical personnel nearby. Defendant was on a stretcher and had cuts on his face, but Jacobs characterized defendant's injuries as "minor."
Jacobs testified that his mission in such circumstances, after assuring that injured persons were receiving appropriate treatment, was to clear the accident scene, restore normal traffic flow, and obtain the information he needed to prepare a report, including the driver's license, registration and insurance information. However, Jacobs did not request such information from defendant in the five minutes or so before he was transported in an ambulance. Jacobs explained he did not wish to interfere with defendant's treatment. Jacobs also did not recall seeking such information by reporting the vehicle tag number to dispatch. Nor did Jacobs delay obtaining the information until he could secure it from defendant in the hospital.
Instead, after defendant left by ambulance, Jacobs entered the overturned vehicle to locate and retrieve relevant documents. The windows were all down. Although he intended to search the glove compartment and center console, he entered the rear driver's side window. He explained he just happened to be standing there before deciding to enter the vehicle.
Jacobs said that various items were strewn on the interior ceiling of the overturned car, including a school bag or backpack, which was situated between the two rear doors. Jacobs testified, "[W]e kind of put our head in there to kind of squeeze in [and] try to get everything, and that's when I observed the black bag, school bag. . . . [I]t was unzipped and the . . . flat [sic] was over, so . . . I observed the gun at that point." Jacobs testified that the police removed the gun, and conducted a further search of the bag, finding defendant's personal identification, automobile insurance information, and pay stubs. Jacobs ultimately retrieved the registration from the glove box or ...