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State v. Rodriguez

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

May 3, 2019

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
JUAN RODRIGUEZ, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued April 8, 2019

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Indictment No. 18-04-0195.

          Paul H. Heinzel, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Michael H. Robertson, Somerset County Prosecutor, attorney; Paul H. Heinzel and Alexander C. Mech, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the briefs).

          John P. Morris argued the cause for respondent.

          Zachary G. Markarian, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for amicus curiae Office of the Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Zachary G. Markarian, of counsel and on the brief).

          Jane C. Schuster, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jane C. Schuster, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Sumners and Mitterhoff.


          SABATINO, P.J.A.D.

         In State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409, 415 (2015), the Supreme Court revised the standards under New Jersey law governing police searches of motor vehicles that have been lawfully stopped at the roadside. The Court held such nonconsensual roadside searches may be conducted without a warrant if: (1) the police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity; and (2) the situation arose from unforeseeable and spontaneous circumstances. Id. at 446-48.

         In the present roadside search case, the trial court suppressed bags of marijuana and other incriminating evidence police officers found within a vehicle driven by defendant, which they had stopped for traffic violations. The court construed Witt to disallow a warrantless on-the-spot roadside search where the police at the scene have sufficient grounds to have the vehicle towed away and impounded. The court ruled the police in such circumstances, absent valid consent, need to obtain a warrant in order to search the vehicle's interior.

         We reverse the suppression order. We hold the police officers were not required to impound defendant's vehicle in order to search it under the circumstances presented. The officers had the discretion to proceed instead with a warrantless roadside search, because the two critical elements of Witt, i.e., probable cause and spontaneity, were satisfied. In addition, there was no unreasonable delay in the officers making their decision to proceed with the search at the scene.



         The State has charged defendant Juan Rodriguez in a one-count indictment with first-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, namely marijuana in a quantity of at least twenty-five pounds, with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense it, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and -5(b)(10)(a). As we will explain in more detail, the bags of marijuana and other contraband were seized during a roadside stop without a warrant from a vehicle that defendant had been driving.

         Defendant moved to suppress the seized items. The trial court conducted a suppression hearing at which one of the police officers who had been involved in the search testified. The court was also provided with the motor vehicle recordings ("MVRs") from two squad cars of responding police officer's, which filmed portions of the events. The court also reviewed transcripts of the audio portions of the MVRs and several photographs and documents.


         The pertinent facts that emerged at the suppression hearing were substantially undisputed by the parties.

         On January 1, 2018, Police Officer Kevin Olah of Warren Township was in a marked patrol vehicle at a gas station on Martinsville Road in Basking Ridge. At approximately 2:07 a.m., Officer Olah observed a white Jeep Grand Cherokee with an Alabama license plate drive past. He noticed the Jeep's passenger-side headlight was out. He thereafter observed several air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror, in violation of the traffic laws.

         Olah followed the Jeep on Liberty Corner Road. As the Jeep took the eastbound entrance ramp for Interstate 78, Olah initiated a motor vehicle stop. A few minutes later, Police Officer Thomas Clarke arrived at the scene to assist.

         Olah approached the passenger side of the vehicle and began speaking with the driver, the Jeep's sole occupant. The driver presented a California driver's license that identified him as Juan Rodriguez. Olah smelled the odor of raw marijuana emanating from the Jeep. He also noticed several small pieces of marijuana on the front passenger seat. Defendant told Olah that he did not own the vehicle. He claimed he had borrowed ...

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