Warrantless Seizure and Reversed Conviction – State v. Williams A-2486-11T2 (App. Div)
State v. Williams A-2486-11T2 (App. Div)
On April 3, 2013, the Appellate Division reversed the conviction of the defendant, Jarrell Williams for second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b. Defendant was charged with possession of a handgun after police performed a motor vehicle stop and found the handgun on the floor of the car. On July 25, 2010, the defendant and his friends were sitting in the defendant’s car outside his house after just purchasing some marijuana down the street when plain clothes police in an unmarked car approached defendant’s vehicle. Defendant pulled over to the side, shut off the car and all four gentlemen came out of the vehicle. The officers engaged the men in conversation about 20 feet from the defendant’s vehicle at which point one of the four men fled. One of the officers went to check the defendant’s car, which still had all four doors open, for evidence of other crimes. Allegedly, while standing outside the passenger’s rear-side door the officer saw a burnt marijuana cigarette and retrieved the evidence. The officer then walked around the car and within seconds found a black and silver Hi-Point semi-automatic pistol on the floor between the driver’s seat and the pedals.
At trial there was a significant issue to the officer’s credibility in observing the evidence of the handgun in plain view. The officer testified that his check of the defendant’s car took less than a minute, however the defendants’ witnesses testified that it was more like five minutes and that he was thoroughly searching the vehicle. Defense council was restricted by the trial judge in cross-examination of the State’s key witness, the officer that found the handgun. The trial judge sustained the State’s objections during the officer’s cross-examination to avoid placing the jury in a place to decide if the search and seizure was constitutional. The Appellate Division agrees with the trial court that the constitutionality of the search and seizure was determined at the suppression hearing; however the jury is not bound by the credibility findings of the trial judge at the suppression hearing.
The Appellate Division therefore must reverse the trial court for restricting the cross-examination of the State’s key witness in violation of the Confrontation Clause. It was improper of the trial court to limit defense council’s cross-examination to what the officer observed and what he did. Defense council is allowed to probe the mind of the officer in an effort to show a motive to fabricate the location of where evidence is found. Attacking the officer’s credibility does not usurp the trial court’s exclusive function in determining the validity of a search and seizure. No matter whether the outcome would have been the same, the trial court did not make a harmless error in violating the defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights. The take away is that the credibility of the officer can still be probed at trial to an officer’s motive and knowledge of warrantless seizure even when defendants are denied a suppression order for evidence obtained in plain view.