Argued March 24, 2015.
Approved for Publication May 21, 2015.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Indictment Nos. 12-05-1236 and 12-03-0627.
Amira R. Scurato, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant ( Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Ms. Scurato, of counsel and on the brief).
Jane C. Schuster, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent ( John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Ms. Schuster, of counsel and on the brief).
Before FISHER, NUGENT and ACCURSO
[441 N.J.Super. 34] ACCURSO, J.A.D.
Following the denial of his motion to suppress evidence seized in a warrantless search of his car, defendant Dion E. Robinson entered a negotiated plea of guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b), and was sentenced to a prison term of five years, with a mandatory three-year period of parole ineligibility. Defendant appeals from the denial of his [441 N.J.Super. 35] motion to suppress the handgun, renewing his argument to the trial court that the police were required to obtain a warrant before searching his car. We agree and reverse the denial of the motion.
The only witness at the suppression hearing was the arresting officer. According to the officer, he was on routine patrol in Galloway Township at approximately 12:55 a.m. when he noticed defendant's car pull onto the highway from a motel parking lot in " a high-crime, high-drug area." The officer watched as the driver twice activated his right turn signal, first to turn into a convenience store and then to enter a jug handle for a U-turn, only to quickly cut back into his lane both times. Although acknowledging that the driver signaled the lane change back onto the highway each time, the officer termed the conduct a " little suspicious."  He followed the car onto the Garden State Parkway and initiated a motor vehicle stop after he noticed an air freshener hanging from the interior rearview mirror that " appeared it could have been a windshield obstruction."
Upon approaching from the passenger side, the officer found four young black people in the car. Defendant, who was driving, immediately handed over the car registration and insurance card and said his license was suspended. The car did not belong to any of the occupants, and none could provide the name of the owner. The officer, noticing an open beer bottle in the back seat and that no one was wearing a seat belt, asked the passengers for identification as well. Two of the passengers produced identification cards, neither having a driver's license. All were cooperative.
[441 N.J.Super. 36] When the officer returned to his patrol car to radio dispatch with the information he had obtained from the group, he learned that defendant and one of the men in the backseat, Terron Henderson, had open warrants and that both were known to carry weapons. The officer called for backup and a decision was made to " proceed tactically and in a high-risk fashion." Four additional cars quickly arrived and all five officers approached the car with guns drawn. Defendant and Henderson were arrested, searched, handcuffed and placed into patrol cars without incident. No contraband was found on either man. The other two passengers, the ones without drivers' licenses, were also removed at gunpoint, patted down for weapons and detained on the side of the road, away from the car.
After all of the occupants had been removed and defendant and Henderson arrested, the officer testified that his sergeant directed him to " conduct a sweep of the interior of the vehicle . . . [t]o check for weapons." According to the officer, he checked under the front seats and " common areas where a weapon could be hidden." When he lifted the purse the front seat passenger had left on her seat, he felt a heavy object in the bottom. Touching it, he could feel the outline of a gun. The officer opened the purse and retrieved a loaded .38 caliber revolver. The officers placed ...