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Reininger v. Attorney General of State of New Jersey

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 30, 2018




         Before this Court is the petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus of Petitioner Dustin Reininger (“Petitioner”), brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's habeas petition is DENIED, and Petitioner is DENIED a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         A. State Court proceedings

         A Hunterdon County grand jury charged defendant Dustin Reininger with second-degree unlawful possession of assault firearms, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(f) (count one); second-degree possession of handguns without a permit, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(b) (count two); third-degree unlawful possession of rifles, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(c) (count three); third-degree unlawful possession of shotguns, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(c) (count four); fourth-degree possession of hollow-nose bullets, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-3(f) (count five); fourth-degree possession of a large capacity ammunition magazine, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-3(j) (count six); third-degree hindering his own apprehension, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-3(b) (count seven); and fourth-degree obstruction of the administration of law, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-1 (count eight). Count eight was dismissed by the court prior to trial. Defendant was tried in absentia. See State v. Reininger, 430 N.J.Super. 517, 525 (App. Div. 2013).

         In a published opinion affirming Petitioner's conviction and sentence, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division provided the following summary of the facts underlying this matter:[1]

At approximately 3:25 a.m. on March 20, 2009, Patrolman Gregory Wester of the Readington Township Police Department was on routine patrol when he observed a Toyota sport utility vehicle (SUV) with its lights off, parked behind a Wachovia Bank. As Wester pulled into the bank's parking lot to investigate, he turned on his overhead lights, which activated a mobile video recorder on his dashboard. After notifying the police dispatcher of his location, Wester approached the vehicle with a flashlight.
Wester noticed that the vehicle had Texas license plates and that an individual, later identified as defendant, was sleeping in the driver's seat under a blanket. Wester testified that when he woke defendant, he appeared “nervous and tired.” According to Wester, defendant “had trouble maintaining eye contact” and when asked “a basic question he would think about it and stutter.”
Defendant provided Wester with a Texas driver's license but could not produce the vehicle registration or proof of insurance. When Wester inquired about a Texas license plate on the floor near the center console that was different from the plates on the SUV, defendant said the plates on the vehicle had expired, and he had difficulty installing the current plates which were in the vehicle. Defendant also said he had been a police officer in Maine and had stopped to rest while traveling from Maine to Texas, but defendant was unable to produce any law enforcement identification.
Wester noticed several items “stacked” on the backseat of the SUV, and he asked if there was anything illegal in the vehicle. Defendant answered, “No.” Wester also asked defendant if he was transporting any firearms, and defendant responded, “No, no, all good.” At that point, Wester used his flashlight to illuminate the rear passenger compartment, and he saw two nylon firearm cases on the backseat of defendant's vehicle. Wester again asked if there were any firearms in the SUV, and defendant again answered, “No.” Wester testified, “Once I saw the firearms I didn't say anything about it. I didn't want to alert him. I immediately radioed for backup.”
When a backup officer arrived, Wester confronted defendant about the cases on the backseat of the vehicle. Wester said he saw “a case in there that looks very, very similar to what I have in my house for my long arm, so I'm going to ask you again [are] there any firearms in the car.” This time, defendant admitted he had “long arms that [he was] moving to Texas, ” which were registered in Texas. Defendant was ordered out of the vehicle and patted down for weapons, but none were found.
After two more officers arrived, Wester asked for consent to search the vehicle. Defendant denied consent. Wester asked how many firearms were in the vehicle, and defendant answered, “Three shotguns [and] an AR-15.” Wester also asked if there were any handguns in the SUV. Defendant said he was “not sure, ” even though he acknowledged he had packed the vehicle.
Wester then opened the back door of defendant's SUV and removed the two nylon cases. Wester testified he did so “for safety reasons” and to make sure the firearms were being “transported in a safe manner.” As Wester was examining the cases, defendant told another officer there were “approximately twelve firearms” in the vehicle, including “a loaded Glock handgun” behind the driver's seat. Once defendant admitted there was a loaded handgun in his vehicle, he was charged with hindering his own apprehension, advised of his Miranda rights, and handcuffed. Wester then returned the firearm cases to the vehicle, and it was towed to the Readington Township Police Department. Later that same morning, Wester applied for and obtained a search warrant.
A search of defendant's vehicle revealed twenty-one firearms, including rifles, shotguns, and handguns. In addition, the police recovered hollow-nose bullets from the Glock handgun and a large capacity magazine.
When Wester testified before the grand jury, he provided a summary of the firearms and other items recovered from defendant's vehicle. He also stated that defendant's SUV did not have a trunk, but rather a “rear compartment, ” and that defendant did not have a New Jersey permit to purchase or carry firearms or a New Jersey firearms purchaser ID card.
Wester explained that several of the rifles and shotguns were located on the backseat of defendant's vehicle and were stored in either nylon or cloth cases that closed with zippers or Velcro flaps, and none of the firearms were in locked containers. One of the grand jurors asked whether defendant would have been charged if the firearms were “locked in a box and separated.” The prosecutor responded:
No. There are actually some exceptions to the requirements. . . . Basically, if someone is moving . . . from Residence A [to] Residence B, or transporting, say, for example, they just purchased it, so they can transport it to their home, if they are properly secured, locked in a trunk, locked in a special lockbox and unloaded, then that would most likely provide an exception to these requirements, and therefore a defense to being charged.
So, that is a factor to consider how the weapons were contained and, again, whether they were loaded, whether they were in a lockbox.
The prosecutor also read the exemption for transporting firearms under [N.J. Stat. Ann.] § 2C:39-6(g), which requires a firearm to “be carried unloaded and contained in a closed and fastened case, gunbox, securely tied package, or locked in the trunk of the automobile in which it is being transported.” Defendant filed three pretrial motions: a motion to dismiss the indictment, a motion to suppress evidence obtained with and without a search warrant, and a motion to suppress his statements to the police. Wester was the only witness to testify at the suppression hearing. Except for dismissing count eight of the indictment, which charged defendant with obstructing the administration of law, the court denied the motions on March 8, 2010.
During a pretrial conference on April 16, 2010, the court informed defendant of his right to be present at trial and that the trial was scheduled for August 9, 2010. The court also informed defendant that if he failed to appear, the trial could proceed in his absence. Defendant stated that he understood. Nevertheless, Defendant failed to appear for his trial, which began on August 9, 2010, and his attorney could not explain his absence.
The State presented testimony from Detective Donald Mundorff, a member of the New Jersey State Police Firearms Investigation Unit. He testified Defendant had not applied for a New Jersey firearms ID card, pistol purchase permit, carrying permit, or a permit for an assault weapon. Mundorff conceded on cross-examination, however, that a Maine resident who purchased firearms in Maine would not be required to obtain New Jersey permits or firearms purchaser's ID cards to transport the firearms through New Jersey, so long as the firearms were transported in accordance with 18 U.S.C.A § 926A, which regulates the interstate transportation of firearms. . . .
In addition, the State called Wester and Detective Sergeant Ryan Neiber to document the location of the firearms and additional items recovered from defendant's SUV through digital photography. Wester testified the SUV did not have a trunk, and some rifles and shotguns were in unlocked nylon or vinyl cases on the backseat of defendant's vehicle. According to Wester, the rest of the rifles and shotguns were in “gun socks.” Wester testified the gun socks had “an opening on one end with Velcro. Just open the Velcro and you can slide the gun out of the gun sock.” Wester also testified that the Glock handgun, recovered from behind the driver's seat, was loaded with hollow-nose bullets.
The State's final witness, Detective Gary Mayer, a ballistics expert with the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, was responsible for determining whether the firearms were operable. Except for one shotgun that was broken, Mayer examined and test-fired each of the firearms and found them to be operational. Mayer also testified that an ammunition magazine recovered from the vehicle, which held approximately thirty bullets, was compatible with two of the semi-automatic weapons he tested.
Defendant did not present any witnesses. Defense counsel emphasized in his opening and closing statements that defendant was in the process of traveling from his “old residence in Maine” to his “new residence in Texas, ” and that it was lawful for defendant to transport his firearms from “one residence [to] another residence while moving.” Defendant's attorney also argued that some of the firearms cases had zippers that were “closed and fastened” and the cases that did not have zippers were not “any less worthy.” Therefore, defendant “was within the exemptions of the federal law.” In response, the State stressed that the Glock handgun was loaded, none of the firearms were in locked containers, and the firearms on the backseat of defendant's vehicle were readily accessible from the driver's seat.
The court instructed the jury to consider both state and federal laws regulating the transportation of firearms. The jury was instructed that defendant had a defense under New Jersey law, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-6(g), if: (1) he was “carrying or transporting” the firearms “from one residence to another or between his residence and place of business”; (2) “the firearms being transported were carried unloaded”; and (3) “the firearms were contained in a closed and fastened case, gunbox, securely tied package, or locked in the trunk” of ...

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