Standard of review Suppression of Evidence Pre-State v. Witt (Pena-Flores Standard of Review) Motor Vehicle Stop New Jersey
State v. Ortiz New Jersey Appellate Division May 6, 2019 (Not Approved for Publication)
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In reviewing a motion to suppress evidence, this court must defer to the trial court’s fact findings underlying its decision, “so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.” State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009) (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). We defer to the credibility determinations of the trial court, particularly its review of competing factual testimony, because these factual determinations “are substantially influenced by [the trial court’s] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the ‘feel’ of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.” Elders, 192 N.J. at 244 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). We reverse only when the determination is “so clearly mistaken ‘that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'” Ibid. (quoting Johnson, 42 N.J. at 162).
However, we need not defer to any legal conclusions reached from the established facts. State v. Brown, 118 N.J. 595, 604 (1990) (holding that if 10 “the trial court acts under a misconception of the applicable law,” we need not defer to its ruling). The trial court’s application of the law is subject to plenary review on appeal. State v. Cleveland, 371 N.J. Super. 286, 295 (App. Div. 2004).
“The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution require that police officers obtain a warrant before searching a person’s property, unless the search ‘falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.'” State v. Cassidy, 179 N.J. 150, 159-60 (2004) (quoting State v. DeLuca, 168 N.J. 626, 631 (2001)); see also State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6, 18 (2009). A warrantless search is presumed invalid, which places the burden on the State to prove that a search “falls within one of the few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement.” State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 19-20 (2004) (quoting State v. Maryland, 167 N.J. 471, 482 (2001)).
Because the subject incident occurred in May 2015, before the Supreme Court issued its decision in State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409 (2015), in September 2015, there is no dispute the holding in Pena-Flores controls and governs our review.1 198 N.J. at 28. In Pena-Flores, the Court held the warrantless search of an automobile in New Jersey was permissible only where (1) the stop is unexpected; (2) the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime; and (3) exigent circumstances exist under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant. The notion of exigency encompasses far broader considerations than the mere mobility of the vehicle.
[Ibid. (citations omitted).]
Here, the first two factors are not in dispute. The issue is whether exigent circumstances existed to justify the warrantless search of defendant’s car.
In Pena-Flores, the Court held circumstances were deemed exigent if it was “impracticable to obtain a warrant when the police have probable cause to search the car.” Id. at 23 (quoting State v. Colvin, 123 N.J. 428, 437 (1991)). “[O]fficer safety and the preservation of evidence is the fundamental inquiry[,]” id. at 29, because until the vehicle is seized by the police and removed from the scene, “it is potentially accessible to third persons who might move or damage it or remove or destroy evidence contained in it,” State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211, 234 (1981).
1 Pena-Flores was prospectively overruled in Witt, 223 N.J. at 449. 12
Exigency must be determined on a case-by-case basis and “[n]o one factor is dispositive; courts must consider the totality of the circumstances.” Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. at 29. Although “[t]here is no magic formula – it is merely the compendium of facts that make it impracticable to secure a warrant[,]” ibid., the Court in Pena-Flores identified a non-exhaustive list of factors a court must consider when determining the existence of exigent circumstances. These factors are:
the time of day; the location of the stop; the nature of the neighborhood; the unfolding of the events establishing probable cause; the ratio of officers to suspects; the existence of confederates who know the location of the car and could remove it or its contents; whether the arrest was observed by passersby who could tamper with the car or its contents; whether it would be safe to leave the car unguarded and, if not, whether the delay that would be caused by obtaining a warrant would place the officers or the evidence at risk.
[Id. at 29-30.]