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State v. Bennett

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 18, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
JOHN R. BENNETT, Defendant-Appellant.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 25, 2012

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Municipal Appeal No. 2010-45.

Robert Ramsey argued the cause for appellant (Donini & Ramsey, attorneys; Mr. Ramsey, on the brief).

Jennifer Moran, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph L. Bocchini, Jr., Mercer County Prosecutor, attorney; Ms. Moran of counsel and on the brief; John M. Jingoli, Jr., Assistant Prosecutor, on the brief).

Before Judges Fuentes, Harris and Koblitz.

OPINION

FUENTES, P.J.A.D.

By leave granted, defendant John R. Bennett appeals from the order of the Law Division reversing the decision of the Princeton Municipal Court to suppress evidence seized by the police that led to him being charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and refusal to provide samples of his breath for the purpose of determining the content of alcohol in his blood, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2.

In this appeal, defendant argues the Law Division erred in relying on the community caretaking doctrine to justify intrusive and constitutionally impermissible law enforcement conduct by the arresting police officer. Defendant also argues the Law Division incorrectly found that the character and duration of the arresting officer's interaction with defendant prior to his arrest were permissible byproducts of a valid investigative detention. The State urges us to affirm the Law Division's decision as a proper application of the community caretaking doctrine to the salient facts of this case. The State also adopts the Law Division's characterization of the conduct of the police officer who interacted with defendant at the scene as permissible investigative techniques.

After reviewing the evidentiary record developed before the municipal court and presented to the Law Division, we reverse. We are satisfied that the actions taken by the police officer at the scene do not fall under the purview of the community caretaking doctrine nor do they constitute constitutionally permissible investigative techniques.

The following facts were stipulated by the parties before the municipal court and the Law Division. These facts were recited by the Law Division judge in his memorandum of decision.

[Princeton Borough Police Sergeant Steven] Riccitello was at the WAWA convenience store on University Place in Princeton Borough at around 2:49 a.m. on [Sunday] October 3, 2010 [responding to a] report of a gathering of a large crowd of student customers. The WAWA is adjacent to the Princeton University campus.
While Riccitello stood in front of the store, defendant pulled a 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe into the parking space directly in front of the officer. A passenger quickly exited the automobile and entered the store, while defendant remained inside the vehicle. Riccitello's attention "was drawn to the driver . . . as he was groggy and appeared to be falling asleep behind the steering wheel with the engine running." Riccitello then approached the vehicle and opened the door to speak to the driver.

The evidence Riccitello obtained from defendant this point forward is the object of his motion to suppress. Based on this evidence, the municipal court judge initially found the State failed to meet its burden that Sergeant Riccitello was performing a community caretaking act by opening the door of the vehicle because his primary concern was for defendant's safety and wellbeing. The Law Division ...


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