STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. SHANNON SIDOREK

Annotate this Case

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE

APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY

APPELLATE DIVISION

DOCKET NO. A-0

STATE OF NEW JERSEY,

Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

SHANNON SIDOREK,

Defendant-Respondent.

______________________________________________

October 7, 2014

 

Argued September 16, 2014 Decided

Before Judges Messano and Ostrer.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Indictment No. 13-04-0480.

JenniferB. Paszkiewicz,Assistant Prosecutor,argued thecause forappellant (RobertD. Bernardi,Burlington County Prosecutor, attorney;Ms. Paszkiewicz,on the brief).

Kevin Walker, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Mr. Walker, of counsel and on the brief).

PER CURIAM

By our leave granted, the State appeals from the Law Division's order granting defendant, Shannon M. Sidorek's, motion to suppress evidence seized without a search warrant. For reasons expressed below, we now reverse and remand the matter to the Law Division for further proceedings.

I.

On February 28, 2012, defendant was involved in a two-car motor vehicle accident in which the driver of the other vehicle was killed. The Burlington County grand jury subsequently returned Indictment No. 2013-04-0480-I, charging defendant with: first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a(1); second-degree vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5a; and third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1).

At the evidentiary hearing on defendant's motion to suppress, the State produced a single witness, Pemberton Township Police Sergeant Peter Delagarza. Delagarza testified that on the day in question, at approximately 3:30 p.m., he was "shift supervisor" dispatched to a motor vehicle accident on the "Pemberton Bypass," also known as County Road 530, a two-lane road with one lane of travel in each direction. Delagarza arrived on the scene within ten minutes of being dispatched and found several other police officers, fire personnel and emergency medical technicians already there. The paramedics at the scene determined that the driver of one of the cars, a Honda Civic, had been fatally injured. Defendant, the driver of the other car, an Acura, was also seriously injured and unconscious; responding personnel were attempting to extricate her from the car, making it impossible for Delagarza to get closer than five to ten feet from defendant.

Delagarza was especially trained as a "traffic safety officer," and part of his job that day was "to attempt to determine the circumstances of the crash itself . . . as far as what vehicle may have been more at fault than the other . . . ." Delagarza spoke with a witness who told him that defendant's Acura had been swerving prior to the crash. Delagarza took photographs of "yaw marks," or skid marks, made by the deceased driver's Honda. Based on the gouge marks in the road and the witness's statement, Delagarza's believed "the Acura had crossed over the center lane and impacted the Honda Civic." Delagarza also ran the Acura's license plates through the Aegis Mobile registration system in an attempt to identify defendant, whose name to this point was unknown. The search revealed the Acura was owned by an elderly woman; Delagarza surmised that defendant, who appeared to be in her mid-twenties, was not the owner.

Still unconscious, defendant was extricated from the car, transported by ambulance to a nearby soccer field, and flown by helicopter to the hospital. Neither Delagarza nor other officers accompanied her to the landing zone or to the hospital. Delagarza estimated that approximately twenty minutes passed between his arrival and defendant's departure by helicopter.

Though Delagarza believed he lacked probable cause to search the Acura, he entered the now-vacant vehicle to retrieve the vehicle registration and insurance information to complete his report. The registration and insurance information were in the glove compartment. On the passenger side floor lay defendant's purse.

Delagarza testified that a "positive identification of a person involved in a crash" is important "obviously just to find out who the person is, . . . if anything were to happen to that individual being able to find out family members, somebody we can notify of what's happened, things of that nature." Delagarza took the purse out of the car and walked toward his vehicle.

The purse was medium-sized and had an opening on top that, once opened, exposed all its contents. Delagarza saw three pill bottles, in addition to defendant's wallet, which he opened. Upon discovering defendant's identity, he alerted the EMTs. He was asked by the prosecutor

Q. [W]as there a decision made once the pills were found in the purse to obtain blood?

A. Yes.

Q. And why was that done?

A. Just because the pill bottles that were found. Regardless if the pill bottles weren't found, blood would have been taken anyway.1

Delagarza took the purse and all its contents back to headquarters, where he inspected the contents of the bottles. One of the vials was not in defendant's name and purportedly was a prescription for Xanax. Delagarza examined the pills and conducted an Internet search, ultimately concluding the pills might be oxycodone.

During cross-examination, Delagarza was confronted with his grand jury testimony, in which he stated that he ordered a blood draw after he examined the contents of the pill bottles. On redirect, however, Delagarza unequivocally stated that he ordered the blood draw while at the accident scene. Delagarza acknowledged, however, he did not attempt to procure a warrant for the drawing of defendant's blood, although he was aware of Burlington County's telephonic warrant application system. Delagarza stated that securing a search warrant to draw blood was "something that we've never done . . . ."

During the oral argument that followed, the State contended that Delagarza acted reasonably in trying to obtain defendant's identification, since she was unable to provide any information herself. The State argued that the limited intrusion into defendant's purse was justified both as a "credential[s] search" and pursuant to law enforcement's "community caretaking" function. The State also contended that the evidence resulting from defendant's blood being drawn was subject to the "inevitable discovery" doctrine.

Defendant argued that Delagarza lacked probable cause to believe a crime had been committed when he entered defendant's car and seized the purse. As a result, the subsequent search could not be justified as a credentials search. She also contended that a second search occurred when Delagarza returned to police headquarters, opened the bottles and searched the Internet to identify the content of at least one of them. Defendant argued the blood draw was ordered then, not before, and therefore should be suppressed.

The motion judge issued a written decision in which he determined initially that Delagarza was a credible witness, and he specifically found that Delagarza was unable to speak to defendant because she was unconscious and surrounded by medical personnel. He also found that Delagarza entered defendant's car specifically "to locate identifying information."

The judge concluded, however, that Delagarza's actions were not reasonable, specifically noting that "defendant regained consciousness prior to being evacuated to the hospital," and, when Delagarza entered the vehicle, defendant had already been airlifted. (Emphasis added). The judge concluded Delagarza's claim that "defendant's identification was necessary for any purpose carrie[d] little weight," and he determined that Delagarza's seizure of the purse was unreasonable and unlawful.

The judge then considered the various exceptions to the warrant requirement advanced by the State. He rejected application of the "credential exception," reasoning that in the absence of probable cause, police may not search for credentials without a warrant unless they can demonstrate "that the driver was unable or unwilling to produce such information . . . ." The judge found that in this case, the State "failed to show that it gave defendant an opportunity to produce such information," and "Delagarza's failure to give defendant an opportunity to retrieve her identification from her purse violate[d] her Fourth Amendment rights."

The judge also rejected "community-caretaking" and "emergency aid" exceptions to the warrant requirement. He reasoned that the community-caretaking doctrine applies only if the search is "divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to a violation of a criminal statute." Delagarza was responding to a fatal motor vehicle accident, and "[i]nvestigating an accident is not a community-caretaking function." The judge reasoned that the emergency aid exception did not apply because defendant had already been airlifted to the hospital before Delagarza entered the car and seized her purse. The judge granted defendant's motion, suppressing the "pill bottles, pills obtained from defendant's purse and the blood test" as "the fruits of the poisonous tree," i.e., the unlawful search of defendant's purse.

II.

We set forth some basic tenets that routinely guide our review in these circumstances. "Appellate courts reviewing a grant or denial of a motion to suppress must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record." State v. Gamble, 218 N.J. 412, 424 (2014) (citing State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). "Deference to these factual findings is required because those findings 'are substantially influenced by [an] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.'" Id. at 424-25 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). "A trial court's findings should be disturbed only if they are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'" Elders, supra, 192 N.J.at 244 (citing Johnson, supra, 42 N.J.at 162).

"A trial court's interpretation of the law, however, and the consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." State v. Lamb, 217 N.J.442, 455 (2014) (citing State v. K.W., 214 N.J.499, 507 (2013)). "Therefore, a trial court's legal conclusions are reviewed de novo." Ibid.(citing State v. Gandhi, 201 N.J.161, 176 (2010)).

A.

We first consider whether Delagarza's entry into defendant's vehicle, the seizure of her purse and his observations of the pill bottles inside violated her constitutional rights. The State advances, as it did before the motion judge, that the conduct was objectively reasonable and permissible under the community-caretaking, emergency aid or credential search exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Defendant counters by asserting that neither the community-caretaking or emergency aid exceptions apply, and, pursuant to our holding in State v. Lark, 319 N.J. Super 618 (App. Div. 1999), aff'd 163 N.J. 294 (2000), the credential search exception does not apply because Delagarza lacked probable cause to believe a crime had been committed or that the car contained evidence of a crime.

"[T]he basic test under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution is the same: was the [police] conduct objectively reasonable in light of the facts known to the law enforcement officer at the time of the search." State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39, 46-47 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). While a warrantless search is presumptively invalid, the "presumption of invalidity . . . may be overcome by a showing that a warrantless search was yet reasonable because it 'falls within one of the specific exceptions created by the United States Supreme Court.'" State v. Davila, 203 N.J. 97, 111-12 (2010) (quoting State v. Hill, 115 N.J. 169, 173 (1989)). "The State bears the burden of demonstrating that a particular search fits within one of those recognized exceptions." Id. at 112 (citing Hill, supra, 115 N.J. at 174).

The Court has recognized that in certain situations, police officers have the authority to conduct limited warrantless searches of a vehicle in order to produce proof of ownership and insurance. In State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6, 31 (2009), for example, the Court held that after stopping the defendant for a traffic violation and finding discrepancies between information from a computer lookup of the license plate and the actual car, police were "entitled, separate and apart from the automobile exception, to look into the areas in the vehicle in which evidence of ownership might be expected to be found." In State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 12 (1980), the Court recognized that following a traffic violation, "a search of the vehicle for evidence connected with that violation" was permissible if "reasonable in scope and tailored to the degree of the violation." In State v. Boykins, 50 N.J. 73, 77 (1967), the Court noted that "if the operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership . . . ."

Undoubtedly, we have cautioned against an overly-broad reading of Boykins. In Lark, supra, 319 N.J. Super. at 621-22, upon which defendant extensively relies, the defendant had been stopped for a minor traffic offense and provided a valid registration for the car, but could not produce his driver's license. The defendant was ordered out of the car and searched; he had no identification on his person. Id. at 622. The police officer then opened the car door to search for the defendant's license or identification and observed a bag containing drug paraphernalia, which he seized. He then returned to the car to continue the search, ultimately finding a significant amount of cocaine. Ibid.

We reversed the trial judge's denial of the defendant's motion to suppress. Id. at 624. We noted that "[s]ince Boykins, no Supreme Court ha[d] allowed a search based solely on a driver's inability to present driving credentials. In every case we examined, the facts supported probable cause to search or arrest." Id. at 625. We further observed that "the search in Boykins itself was based on probable cause." Id. at 626 (citing Boykins, supra, 50 N.J. at 77-78). Lastly, we noted that "because this case does not involve a registration search, we need not determine the full import of the Boykins dictum here." Ibid. We held

New Jersey law prescribes exactly what an officer should do when, during a traffic stop, a driver fails to present his license and then lies about his identity. The officer may either detain the driver for further questioning until he satisfies himself as to the driver's true identity, or arrest the driver for operating a vehicle without a license. The officer may not, however, absent probable cause to believe that a further offense has been committed, enter the vehicle to look for identification.

[Id. at 627 (citations omitted).]

Our cases have recognized, however, that even absent probable cause, police may conduct a limited warrantless search of a car for documentation if a defendant is unwilling or unable to produce it. See, e.g., State v. Gammons, 113 N.J. Super. 434, 437 (App. Div. 1971) ("When defendant could not produce his registration certificate . . . [the officer] made the perfectly logical deduction that it might still be in the damaged car which the police had the right to search for evidence of ownership in view of defendant's failure to produce the certificate.").

We reached a different result on the facts presented in State v. Jones, 195 N.J. Super. 119 (1984). There, the defendant suffered minor injuries when his car overturned. Id. at 121. When police extricated the defendant from the vehicle, he was only able to produce his driver's license, the registration and insurance still being in the overturned car. Ibid. When the car was righted, the investigating officer entered the vehicle to get the credentials for his report. Id. at 121-22. In this process, he saw an unzipped travel bag on the backseat which contained drug paraphernalia and what appeared to be cocaine. Id. at 122.

We recognized the vitality of the credentials exception to the warrant requirement. "Where there has been a traffic violation and the operator of the motor vehicle is unable to produce proof of registration, a police officer may search the car for evidence of ownership." Ibid. (citing Boykins, supra, 50 N.J. at 77). That search "must be confined to the glove compartment or other area where a registration might normally be kept in a vehicle[.]" Id. at 122-23 (quoting Patino, supra, 83 N.J. at 12). However, we suppressed the evidence, noting: "We read Boykin and Patino as requiring a showing that [the] defendant was either unable or unwilling to produce the [credentials]." Id. at 123 (emphasis added).

Returning to the facts of this case, we first note that the judge specifically found Delagarza was unable to speak to defendant because she was unconscious and surrounded by medical personnel. At the same time, the judge stated that "defendant regained consciousness prior to being evacuated to the hospital," implying that Delagarza or some other law enforcement officer could have asked for her consent to retrieve the purse or her wallet. This latter factual finding, however, is wholly unsupported by the evidence. There simply was no testimony that defendant ever regained consciousness during her extrication from the vehicle and transport to the helicopter. As a result, we owe no deference to the judge's finding in this regard. The only credible evidence in the record is that defendant was unconscious and "unable . . . to retrieve" her license from the damaged Acura. Jones, supra, 195 N.J. Super. at 123.

As noted, we must assess whether Delagarza's actions were "objectively reasonable in light of the facts known to [him] at the time of the search." Handy, supra, 206 N.J. at 46-47 (internal quotation marks omitted). We conclude they clearly were.

Defendant had not been identified and was being flown to an area hospital to be treated for serious injuries. In such circumstances, police officers would be entirely remiss in their duties if they did not seek to identify the individual through limited, targeted intrusions into places where credentials, including driver's licenses, might be found. The seizure of defendant's purse and Delagarza's attempt to find her license did not offend the Fourth Amendment or our state constitution.2 We therefore reverse.

In our opinion this case is entirely distinguishable from the facts presented in Lark, where we held that a limited intrusion by police to find identifying identification was unlawful, absent probable cause beyond a minor motor vehicle infraction. Lark, supra, 319 N.J. Super. at 627. In this regard, Delagarza's subjective belief that he lacked probable cause is not significant. State v. O'Neal, 190 N.J. 601, 614 (2007).

The Court has said,

[p]robable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within . . . [the officers'] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in themselves to warrant a [person] of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed. The substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief of guilt.

[Id. at 612 (quoting State v. Moore, 181 N.J. 40, (2004) (alterations in original)].

Here, Delagarza knew that defendant was not the registered owner of the car. He also knew, from speaking to a witness at the scene, that defendant's car was swerving before impact. Based upon his training, experience, and observations at the scene, Delagarza had already concluded that defendant's car had crossed over into oncoming traffic, striking the other car and killing its driver. In our minds, these facts alone support a finding of probable cause as to vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5. See State v. Jiminez, 257 N.J. Super. 567, 583 (App. Div. 1992) (defining elements of the offense of death by auto as "the reckless driving of an automobile which results in death of another"); see also Model Jury Charge (Criminal), "Vehicular Homicide (Death by auto or vessel without drunk driving or refusal (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5)" (June 14, 2004) (defining elements). Unlike Lark, an objective assessment of the totality of the circumstances known to Delagarza before he retrieved defendant's purse demonstrate probable cause to believe defendant had committed a criminal offense, and, therefore, the officer's attempts to identify an unconscious defendant were entirely reasonable.

B.

The judge also suppressed the test results of the blood drawn from defendant at the hospital. Having found Delagarza's seizure of defendant's purse was unlawful, the judge reasoned that all that followed was tainted, i.e., the fruit of the poisonous tree. Since we disagree with the judge's legal conclusion, we briefly explain why we also reverse that portion of the order that suppressed the blood test results.

On April 17, 2013, one year after the blood draw in this case and seven months before the motion hearing, the United States Supreme court decided Missouri v. McNeely, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 1552, 185 L. Ed. 2d 696 (2013). Stated succinctly, the McNeely Court held there was no per se rule of exigency in drunk driving cases, and that the need to obtain a search warrant before taking a blood sample was to be determined [683] on a case by case basis. Id. at ___, 133 S. Ct. at 1563, 185 L. Ed. 2d at 709.

In State v. Adkins, 433 N.J. Super. 479, 482, 484 (App. Div. 2013), certif. granted, 217 N.J. 588 (2014), we considered whether McNeely applied retroactively to a blood draw that occurred in 2010, i.e., at a time when "New Jersey law permitted the police to obtain a blood sample without first obtaining a warrant, so long as they had probable cause to believe that the driver was intoxicated." We ultimately reversed the trial court's order suppressing the blood evidence, concluding that

application of the exclusionary rule here would not serve the rule's principal purposes articulated by our Court. It would not deter unlawful police conduct, and it would not meaningfully safeguard the integrity of our judicial process. It is one thing for our courts to eschew involvement in admitting evidence seized unlawfully. It is another thing entirely to exclude evidence seized in conformity with the law as it existed at the time of the seizure.

[Id. at 493.]

Delagarza testified that once he saw the bottles in defendant's purse, he ordered her blood be drawn. His testimony was quite clear that in February 2012, more than a full year before McNeely was decided, he and other members of law enforcement did not believe they needed a warrant to draw blood from someone suspected of having driven while under the influence of alcohol or some other substance, and had never sought one. We follow the reasoning expressed by our colleagues in Adkins, and therefore conclude that the exclusionary rule should not apply in this case to the warrantless seizure of a sample of defendant's blood.

Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.


1 Defendant's blood tested positive for oxycodone.

2 Delagarza's observation and subsequent seizure of the pill bottles was lawful pursuant to the plain view doctrine. See, e.g., State v. Johnson, 171 N.J. 192, 206-08 (2002).