April 8, 2019
appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Somerset County, Indictment No. 18-04-0195.
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).
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).
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
Judges Sabatino, Sumners and Mitterhoff.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
pertinent facts that emerged at the suppression hearing were
substantially undisputed by the parties.
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.
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.
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 ...