NJ Court Upholds Motor Vehicle Stop

State of New Jersey v. Michael Figueroa

Docket No. A-1649-22

Decided February 1, 2024

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal from an order denying his motion to suppress evidence seized during a motor vehicle stop.

On February 21, 2021, while on patrol, an officer with the Florham Park Police Department observed a white van travelling in the left lane of the highway decrease his speed. When the van was about 150 feet away from the officer, the officer observed that the driver appeared “very rigid” at the wheel and the officer believed the driver was now driving below the posted speed limit. At the time, there were not many vehicles on the road. The officer noted that the area where the vehicle’s back license plate is located was also not illuminated. After following the suspect vehicle for about a mile or two, the officer paced behind the vehicle and determined the vehicle was travelling at approximately thirty-five miles per hour, which was substantially below the fifty-mile-per-hour speed limit. When he was closer to the suspect vehicle, the officer’s headlights were able to illuminate the vehicle’s back license plate. The officer followed the suspect vehicle to an intersection, where he turned left and then “turned into the McDonald’s parking lot.” At this time, the officer activated his emergency lights and conducted a motor vehicle stop.

When the officer approached the vehicle and asked the driver, later identified as the defendant, for his driving credentials, he smelled the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle and, in plain view, observed burnt marijuana cigarettes, or roaches in an ashtray in the radio console area. At this point, the officer requested a Sergeant to respond to the stop. Defendant communicated to the officers that he was a security guard coming from Newark and was going to McDonalds to get food. The officer stated that it did not appear that he was coming from Newark, and defendant responded that he went the wrong way.

After the officer verified the defendant’s information, he asked him to exit his vehicle. Because defendant indicated earlier that he was a security guard, the officer asked him if he had any firearms on him or in his vehicle and the defendant stated that he did not. The officer advised the defendant he smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle and asked whether there was anything else illegal. Defendant volunteered a small bag of marijuana from his pocket and admitted he was smoking marijuana just before the stop. Officers then conducted a probable cause search of the vehicle and located a loaded nine-millimeter Smith and Wesson handgun under the driver’s side seat. Defendant was subsequently placed under arrest and read his Miranda rights.

After being indicted for multiple firearms related offenses, defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence. He argued that the officer did not have a reasonable articulable suspicion to initiate the stop; therefore, the subsequent search and seizure was unlawful. After a one-day suppression hearing, the trial court issued an oral opinion denying defendant’s motion. The court found that the State demonstrated that the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion to conduct a motor vehicle stop of defendant’s vehicle. Defendant eventually plead guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1), and was sentenced to forty-two months with a forty-two-month period of parole ineligibility, pursuant to the Graves Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(c). Defendant appealed.

On appeal, defendant contended that the motor vehicle code unambiguously permitted him to drive in the left lane in preparation for a left turn and illuminate his license plate with two working tail lamps and one lamp above his license plate. The State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a motor vehicle stop is supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion the driver is committing a motor vehicle violation. See State v. Atwood, 232 N.J. 433, 446 (2018).

Ultimately, the Appellate Court determined that defendant’s contention that the judge erroneously found the officer validly stopped defendant’s vehicle, based on a reasonable articulable suspicion defendant committed motor vehicle violations did not have merit. The court articulated that there was sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the trial judge’s finding that the officer lawfully stopped defendant for delaying traffic and improper license plate illumination. The court noted that the trial court properly addressed the officer’s assessment that defendant’s vehicle had rear license plate bulbs that were not functioning, and that the vehicle’s rear license plate was flapping. Despite the fact that it later appeared that one of the license plate bulbs was operable, the court stated that the officer credibly testified that the illumination was not bright enough for him to see the license plate. Thus, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.

At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to motions to suppress evidence seized as the result of an unlawful warrantless search. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of the defendant in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington, Haddon Heights, Pine Hill, Bellmawr, Haddon Township, Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.


Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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