Standard of review for reviewing a trial judge’s decision to suppress evidence based on a warrant last search.

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

These are the factual issues you have to be aware of when your attorney is at trial and or add a motion to suppress. These are the issues they trial judge looks for and appellate courts review to determine if the trial judge exercise proper discretion.

State of New Jersey vs Terry.

Facts:

In this case the defendant was charged with several motor vehicle violations under Title 39. The officer observed the GMC truck at 6:50 PM on December 31. He drove behind the truck and activated his lights and siren to affect the motor vehicle stop after the officer observed the driver run a stop sign.  When the police officer ran the license plate he learned that the vehicle was a rental from Hertz car rental at the Newark airport however there is no report of any stolen vehicle.

Two officers approached the vehicle with weapons drawn and ordered the defendant to show his hands multiple times and exit the truck. The officer then opened the driver door and ordered the defendant out of the truck leaning against the truck outside the vehicle with his hands exposed.  No weapons or contraband were found on the driver and the driver’s license and information were accurate.

Although the police said the defendant was not arrested at this time the officer testified the defendant was not free to enter the truck to get the information requested regarding the registration and insurance information for the vehicle.  The officer then proceeded to the passenger side of the vehicle and went into the glove box to locate the vehicle credentials. As the officer was doing that his flashlight reflected on a handgun located on the floor board protruding from under the seat.  The defendant was placed under arrest and the vehicle was impounded and brought to the union police department in order to obtain a search warrant. The search of the defendants jacket incident to arrest revealed the rental agreement and registration.

“The appellate court reviewing a motion to suppress must uphold the factual findings of the trial court so long as the trial courts findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence contained in the trial court record”. The factual findings by the trial judge must be reasonable and the conclusions must be reasonably reached based on that sufficient credible evidence presented in the record. The appellate court must give the trial judge deference because the trial judge has the opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and have a “feel” of the case which is not apparent merely by reviewing the transcript. The appellate court should not disturb the trial courts findings merely because it may reach a different conclusion if it were the tribunal. The trial court’s decision regarding all evidence or inferences go to the trial judges exercising of its own judgment and discretion. The trial judges findings should only be disturbed if the conclusions are so clearly mistaken that the interest of justice to requires intervention and correction.”

However the appellate court need not give deference to the trial judge’s interpretation of the law. Legal issues are reviewed a new in the appellate court. The trial courts interpretation of the law and consequences of flow from established law are not entitled to any special deference.

Therefore the trial lawyer at the time of the motion to suppress hast to attack the facts and expose credibility issues and argue a) firstly that the judge is a making mistake of fact, b) abusing his discretion when connecting the factual dots, c) making him proper credibility findings, and d) making mistakes of law.

In this case the defense attorney did an excellent job pointing out the relevant facts pertaining to the officer’s actions at the motor vehicle stop.  Each and every relevant fact concerning the officer’s conduct was relied upon by the appellate court when it overturned this trial judge.  The key issues related to the defendant being given an opportunity to get back into the car to get his credentials, as opposed to the officer doing it himself, and not even allowing the defendant the opportunity.  Read on.

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