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State of New Jersey v. Donna M. Alessi
Case Number: A-41/42
Court: SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Plaintiff's Attorney: Jeffrey L. Weinstein, Assistant Prosecutor
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We adduce the following facts from the trial record, suppression hearing,
and remand hearing.
In 2011, defendant Donna Alessi began dating her married co-worker,
Philip Izzo. Izzo was a construction official for Raritan Township responsible
for supervising the construction staff, including an inspector, Mark Fornaciari.
During that time, Fornaciari filed a whistleblower claim under New Jersey’s
Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14, naming Izzo
as a defendant. In preparing his defense, Izzo took documents from the
Township’s construction office, including Fornaciari’s personnel file, and
stored them in his truck. Izzo showed a synopsis of those materials to
defendant and discussed the lawsuit with her.
In 2013, the relationship between defendant and Izzo ended. Their
relationship soured to the extent that they asserted claims of harassing conduct
against one another. One night in June 2013, Izzo parked his truck in the
parking lot of a bar in Hillsborough Township and entered the bar. Defendant,
who saw Izzo at the bar, went to the parking lot, entered Izzo’s truck, and
removed some of her personal items as well as Fornaciari’s personnel file. A
surveillance camera at the bar captured defendant’s actions that evening.
Defendant went to the Hillsborough Post Office to mail the personnel
file to Fornaciari. She included an unsigned cover letter indicating she hoped
the file would be of assistance in his lawsuit. She also warned Fornaciari that
Izzo “has been planning to get rid of you for quite some time now,” and he
“got hold of the contractor he says you were inappropriate with to push that
you are not a good employee.” Initially, defendant attempted to mail this
package without a return address, but a postal worker informed her that a
return address was necessary. Defendant wrote the name and address of a
Technical Assistant at the Township’s construction office, Tina Stockelberg,
on the return label.
Nevertheless, the package wound up “returned” to the construction
office because of an issue with the mailing address. The Township
Administrator, Allan Pietrefesa, determined that Stockelberg had not sent the
package and that Fornaciari’s personnel file may have been illegally removed
from the construction office. Pietrefesa contacted the Raritan Township Police
Detective Thomas Camporeale began an investigation into the removal
of Fornaciari’s personnel file. Pietrefesa told Camporeale that he had not
removed the file. He further informed Camporeale that the file was kept in a
locked file in a locked office, which only Pietrefesa and Izzo could access.
Camporeale contacted an officer at the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office
and explained the circumstances surrounding the investigation. An assistant
prosecutor relayed that charges of both official misconduct and misapplication
of entrusted property might be brought “depending on what [the police]
learned in the case and how this envelope left the building.”
Based on the postage stamp, Camporeale knew the package had been
mailed from the Hillsborough Post Office. At the post office, he reviewed the
surveillance video. The footage showed a woman inscribing the return
address, mailing the package, and getting into her car. He later learned from
other employees at the construction office that Izzo had dated defendant.
Additionally, Camporeale ran a Motor Vehicles Commission search to obtain a
photograph of defendant. He compared it to the post office surveillance video
and concluded that “it was the same person.”
In advance of a planned vacation, Camporeale formally transferred the
investigation to his colleague, Detective Benedict Donaruma. Camporeale
“briefed him on everything to make sure that he was up-to-date.” Donaruma
viewed the surveillance footage and likewise concluded the woman in the
video appeared “very similar” to defendant. Determined to learn why the
personnel file went missing and wound up in defendant’s possession,
Donaruma called defendant at least twice and left one or more unreturned
voicemails. Donaruma would later testify that “for the most part . . . when we
leave messages people do get back to us.”
One of Donaruma’s colleagues who lived in defendant’s area drove past
her home on two occasions in failed attempts to make contact with her.
Detectives Camporeale and Donaruma determined the next step in their
investigation was to visit defendant’s home personally. They arrived at her
condominium complex in an unmarked police car and knocked on the door, but
no one answered and defendant’s car was not present. Donaruma left his
business card either “in the door in-between the screen door” or wedged in the
home number on the front door. Again, Donaruma testified that, in his
experience, this practice ordinarily led to a return call.
After several days passed without hearing from defendant, Donaruma
decided to return to her home. Early on the morning of July 30, Donaruma
ventured back to the condominium complex by himself because Camporeale
had left for vacation. This time, he spotted defendant’s car. He parked,
walked up to the front door, and knocked multiple times “for about a minute or
two.” Although no one answered the door, he noticed a woman peer out from
behind the curtain. Donaruma then identified himself by saying “police
department, need to speak to you,” and knocked again. After another minute,
he concluded no one would answer the door and returned to his car. As before,
Donaruma testified that, in his experience, if someone was home when he
knocked, that person typically answered the door.
Donaruma drove around the corner of defendant’s complex and waited to
see if the woman would leave. After a couple of minutes, he spotted
defendant’s vehicle on a local road within her development. Though
Donaruma did not observe her commit a traffic violation, he pulled behind her
in his marked patrol car and activated the overhead lights. When defendant
stopped, Donaruma approached her car and said he wanted to discuss his
investigation into the mailing of an envelope containing a missing personnel
file. After questioning defendant for a few minutes by the side of the road,
defendant asked to move to a more private location. Donaruma followed her
to a nearby parking lot where the questioning continued for about an hour.
Over the course of the questioning, Donaruma informed defendant multiple
times that she was free to leave.
According to Donaruma, defendant initially denied involvement until he
showed defendant an image of herself from the post office’s surveillance
footage. Defendant then admitted she sent the package at the behest of her
then-boyfriend Izzo in an effort to get Fornaciari and Stockelberg in trouble
with the Township. Defendant explained how Izzo wanted to create the
appearance that Stockelberg, who “had an alliance” with Fornaciari, stole the
personnel file at Fornaciari’s direction to help with his lawsuit. Defendant
conceded she and Izzo drafted the letter together and she intentionally listed
the wrong return address so the package would end up with the Township.
Eventually, defendant asked to leave for work. She agreed to meet
Donaruma later that day at the police department. Donaruma arranged to have
her picked up in a nearby parking lot and taken to the garage entrance at the
police station because she did not want to be seen or have her car seen in the
Township parking lot. At the police station, defendant initially gave a
statement, then was advised of her Miranda rights, and invoked her right to
counsel. This statement was not admitted at trial.
Using the information defendant provided during the roadside stop,
police arrested Izzo on charges of second-degree official misconduct and third
degree misapplication of entrusted property. Upon arrest, Izzo gave a
statement to police contradicting defendant’s account. He claimed the
personnel file had been stolen out of his truck at the bar. As a result, the
police obtained and reviewed Izzo’s and defendant’s phone records, as well as
the surveillance footage from the bar showing defendant entering Izzo’s truck.
On October 2, defendant gave another statement in the presence of her
attorney, which was later played at her trial. In it, defendant indicated that, by
the time she mailed the package, she was no longer dating Izzo. She asserted
she had permission to enter Izzo’s truck and remove her personal effects, and
that she accidentally grabbed the personnel file. Upon realizing her mistake,
she decided to send it back to Fornaciari to spite Izzo and help with the
lawsuit. She explained that Fornaciari’s address was correct and that she
intended for him to receive the envelope and cover note. She claimed she had
no intention of involving Stockelberg and only provided her return address
when prompted for an address by the employee at the post office.
After police arrested defendant, a Hunterdon County grand jury returned
an indictment charging her with fourth-degree false reporting, N.J.S.A. 2C:28
4(b)(1); third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(4); and
third-degree burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2(a)(1).
Defendant filed a motion to suppress the contents of her roadside
statement to Donaruma based on a violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Defendant did not challenge the validity of the initial roadside stop under the
Fourth Amendment. Because the trial judge determined defendant was not in
custody during the stop and the subsequent questioning, he denied her motion
and admitted her roadside statement at trial.
After a five-day-long trial, a jury found defendant guilty on all three
counts. The judge sentenced her to two years of probation and one hundred
hours of community service.
Defendant appealed, challenging, in part, the initial stop. The Appellate
Division reversed her convictions, remanding for a new trial. Defendant had
not raised a Fourth Amendment challenge to the stop before the trial judge so
the Appellate Division reviewed for plain error under Rule 2:10-2. As relevant
here, the court held the roadside stop was unconstitutional because there were
neither “particularized facts justifying the stop” nor “articulable and
reasonable suspicion that [defendant] either committed a motor vehicle offense
or was engaged in criminal activity.”
Following a motion for reconsideration, the Appellate Division changed
course as to the burglary conviction only. In the court’s view, there was clear
evidence that defendant entered Izzo’s truck without permission, removed the
personnel file, and mailed it to the Township.
Both sides sought certification from this Court. On February 9, 2018,
we granted defendant’s petition, “limited to the issue of whether the burglary
conviction also should have been reversed due to the admission of defendant’s
incriminating roadside statement, which influenced the jury’s determination as
to defendant’s credibility.” 232 N.J. 289 (2018). We also granted the State’s
cross-petition in full. 232 N.J. 293 (2018). We further granted the Office of
the Attorney General’s and the American Civil Liberties Union of New
Jersey’s motions for leave to appear as amici curiae.
Following oral argument, this Court “determined that a remand to the
trial court [wa]s required for that court to make a record and findings of fact
and law on whether the officer’s stop of defendant’s vehicle was constitutional
under U.S. Const. amend. IV and N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7.” ___ N.J.___ (2018).
We ordered that, “among other things, the trial court should address whether,
under the circumstances of this case, a police officer may stop a vehicle to
question the driver when both the stop and the questioning are unrelated to any
motor vehicle violation.” Ibid. We retained jurisdiction over the matter to
review the trial court’s ultimate findings of fact and conclusions of law. Ibid.
On remand, the trial judge took testimony from Camporeale and
Donaruma. The judge concluded that “under the circumstances of this case the
stop and resultant seizure [were] unconstitutional.” The judge’s conclusion
centered on her finding that Donaruma lacked reasonable suspicion of
defendant’s participation in a crime, which should have prevented him from
pulling her over.
Initially, the judge rejected the State’s contention that the detectives’
repeated attempts to contact defendant established reasonable suspicion of
defendant’s criminality. The judge found there was no evidence defendant
received Donaruma’s business card, and Donaruma never positively identified
the woman who peered from behind the curtain as defendant. At best, the
judge reasoned, “the only conclusion one could reach is that these
circumstances did increase [Donaruma’s] suspicion that defendant was
avoiding contact.” Yet, in the judge’s view, that was insufficient to engender
reasonable suspicion of defendant’s involvement in a crime.
The judge noted that, at the time of the stop, law enforcement was “still
investigating the matter to see if a felony had actually been committed,
whether by Izzo alone and/or by someone yet unknown, perhaps with the aid
of defendant.” The judge emphasized that, while Donaruma knew defendant
mailed a personnel file she ordinarily could not access, it was unclear whether
Izzo had authorized her possession of it. Moreover, the judge highlighted
Donaruma’s testimony revealing that he intended solely to speak with
defendant to further his investigation and was not suspicious of her
involvement in a crime. For that reason, the judge concluded “it was improper
to seize the defendant merely to continue the investigation to determine what,
if anything, of a criminal nature occurred.”
Additionally, the judge held that, even if Donaruma had reasonable
suspicion in the first instance that defendant had been involved in a crime, the
stop was nevertheless unconstitutional because it was “not objectively
reasonable.” As defendant was neither a threat to public safety nor a flight
risk, the judge concluded that Donaruma had no need to stop her. Instead, the
judge explained, Donaruma “could have followed the defendant, wait[ed] for
her to exit her vehicle, and thereafter attempt[ed] to speak with her.”
The State argues the judge erred because Donaruma had a reasonable
and articulable suspicion that defendant was involved in a crime, thereby
justifying the stop. The State highlights how (1) Donaruma knew Izzo and
Fornaciari were embroiled in a lawsuit; (2) Fornaciari’s personnel file was
missing and should not have left the building; (3) Izzo had access to the file;
(4) Izzo was dating defendant; (5) defendant was caught on video with the file;
and (6) defendant inscribed a false return address on the package ostensibly to
cover her tracks.
The State reasons that, just as Izzo’s improper removal of the personnel
file would constitute official misconduct, so too would defendant’s assistance
render her an accomplice to that illegal act. And given that detectives learned
from an assistant prosecutor at the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office that
official misconduct was a potential charge in their investigation, the State
concludes Donaruma had reasonable suspicion of defendant’s involvement in a
The Attorney General aligns with the State, adding that defendant’s
furtive actions to avoid contact with the police augmented the reasonableness
of Donaruma’s suspicion. The Attorney General also underscores the
reliability of Pietrefesa’s original complaint that the personnel file was
improperly removed and returned under false pretenses.
Defendant counters that Donaruma lacked reasonable suspicion to stop
her, so this Court should suppress her statement as the fruit of an illegal stop.
In her view, the testimony developed at the remand hearing reveals that, at the
time of the stop, Detective Donaruma was “unsure that a crime had even been
committed, let alone what [her] role was.” Therefore, as the trial judge found,
“a desire to talk to a potential witness” like defendant, particularly during the
earliest stages of an investigation, “does not constitute reasonable and
articulable suspicion required to justify an investigatory stop and detention.”
Defendant further suggests that even if the stop was initially constitutional, we
must still suppress her statement because “[t]he means used in this case: a
baseless motor-vehicle stop, and then a lengthy, un-Mirandized interrogation,
were wholly unreasonable.”
For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU)
joins defendant, claiming “Donaruma stopped [her] (1) because he was
impatient and (2) he wanted to speak with her about someone else’s possible
wrongdoing.” The ACLU asserts Donaruma knew only “a few disconnected
facts” that afforded nothing more than a mere hunch about her involvement in
a crime, not a reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts.
We deferentially review the trial judge’s factual findings, crediting those
“which are substantially influenced by [the] opportunity to hear and see the
witnesses and to have the ‘feel’ of the case, which a reviewing court cannot
enjoy.’” State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 244 (2007) (quoting State v. Johnson,
42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). We will not substitute the trial judge’s findings of
fact for our own simply because we may have drawn a different conclusion
from the evidence. Ibid. Rather, “[a] trial court’s findings should be disturbed
only if they are so clearly mistaken ‘that the interests of justice demand
intervention and correction.’” Ibid. (quoting Johnson, 42 N.J. at 162). That
said, we owe no deference to the trial judge’s legal conclusions, which we
review de novo. State v. Hinton, 216 N.J. 211, 228 (2013).
We first address the State’s contention that Donaruma lawfully stopped
defendant to obtain her roadside statement. “Both the United States and the
New Jersey Constitutions protect citizens against unreasonable searches and
seizures.” State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 337 (2010) (quoting State v. Amelio,
197 N.J. 207, 211 (2008)). Generally, a warrantless search or seizure is
invalid absent a showing that it “falls within one of the few well-delineated
exceptions to the warrant requirement.” Id. at 337-38 (quoting Elders, 192
N.J. at 246). Those exceptions include investigatory stops, also known as
Terry stops after the landmark United States Supreme Court decision, Terry v.
Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
Though the parties disagree on many issues in this appeal, they agree
that Donaruma’s encounter with defendant was such an investigatory stop.
Therefore, we need not consider whether Donaruma seized defendant in the
first instance. Rather, the State must now prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that this presumptively invalid investigatory stop was constitutional.
Mann, 203 N.J. at 337. If the State cannot meet its burden, then we will
suppress the fruits of the stop: namely, defendant’s roadside statement to
Donaruma. State v. Smith, 155 N.J. 83, 100 (1998) (“Evidence obtained as the
fruit of an unlawful search or seizure must be suppressed.”).
The State must show the stop was “based on specific and articulable
facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise
to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Mann, 203 N.J. at 338 (quoting
State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 20 (2004)). Put differently, we “must assess
whether ‘the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure . . .
warrant[ed] a [person] of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken
was appropriate.’” Ibid. (quoting Pineiro, 181 N.J. at 21). While reasonable
suspicion is a “lower standard” than probable cause, State v. Stovall, 170 N.J.
346, 356 (2002), “[n]either ‘inarticulate hunches’ nor an arresting officer’s
subjective good faith can justify infringement of a citizen’s constitutionally
guaranteed rights,” State v. Arthur, 149 N.J. 1, 8 (1997) (quoting Terry, 392
U.S. at 21). We evaluate the totality of the circumstances to determine
whether an officer had a reasonable suspicion that justified an investigatory
stop. Pineiro, 181 N.J. at 22.
We have previously considered the constitutionality of a vehicular stop
where the officer’s suspicion was not based on an observed traffic violation.
In State v. Amelio, the defendant’s daughter called a police dispatcher to
report a domestic disturbance at her home. 197 N.J. at 210. While officers
were en route she called back, this time informing the dispatcher that her
father had drunkenly left their home, and providing the make, color, and
license plate of his car. Ibid. With that knowledge, officers spotted the
defendant’s car and pulled him over, arresting him for driving while
intoxicated and refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. Ibid. We held the
officers had a reasonable and articulable suspicion sufficient to justify the
stop. Id. at 209. Besides the fact that his daughter provided an accurate
description of his car, we emphasized that she identified herself in the call,
thereby exposing herself to criminal prosecution if she had knowingly made a
false report. Id. at 214. In that way, she lent credibility to the information she
conveyed to the dispatcher and, in turn, to the arresting officers’ suspicion that
her father was driving while intoxicated. Ibid.
Similarly, in Arthur, a police officer surveilling an area “known for
heavy narcotics activity” saw the defendant park his car, a person enter the car,
and then that person exit with a paper bag she did not initially have. 149 N.J.
at 3. After the defendant drove off, another officer stopped the former
passenger, searched her bag, and found narcotics paraphernalia. Ibid. The
surveilling officer radioed that information and a description of the
defendant’s car to his colleagues, who would later pull the defendant over and
arrest him. Id. at 5-6. In affirming the stop of the defendant’s vehicle, we
[p]olice officers should consider whether a defendant’s actions are more consistent with innocence than guilt; however, simply because a defendant’s actions might have some speculative innocent explanation does not mean that they cannot support articulable suspicions if a reasonable person would find the actions are consistent with guilt.
[Id. at 11.]
Because of a separate question surrounding the seizure of the passenger,
we considered the legality of the stop of the defendant’s vehicle independent
of the fact that the passenger’s bag was ultimately found to contain drug
paraphernalia. Id. at 12. Nevertheless, we affirmed the stop on the other facts
available to the officers at the time. Id. at 12-13. We highlighted that, while it
was true the officer conducting surveillance did not “literally” observe a drug
transaction between the passenger and the defendant, “it was readily inferable”
that the defendant’s actions were more consistent with illegal narcotics activity
than another explanation even without the knowledge that the passenger’s bag
contained drugs. Id. at 11-12. The defendant parked in a known area of high
drug traffic, a person entered his vehicle for only a few minutes then left with
a paper bag, that person “engaged in furtive movements upon exiting the
vehicle and tried to conceal the bag,” and officers testified that paper bags
were often used for selling drugs. Id. at 10. We approved the stop, ascribing
significance to “the rational inferences that could be drawn from the facts
objectively and reasonably viewed in light of the officer’s expertise.” Ibid.;
accord State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 503 (1986) (citing with approval
consideration of officer’s “training and experience” in evaluation of
Conversely, in State v. Maryland, as the defendant, his stepbrother, and a
companion exited a commuter train, two undercover officers on graffiti patrol
spotted the defendant place a brown paper bag in the waistband of his pants.
167 N.J. 471, 477 (2001). The officers suspected him of concealing either a
weapon or contraband. Id. at 478. After they stopped the defendant to ask
what he was carrying, he turned his body slightly and reached into his
waistband area, prompting a struggle with the officers that caused several bags
of marijuana to spill onto the ground. Ibid. As relevant here, we found the
officers’ suspicion was insufficient to support the initial stop. Id. at 486. We
compared the facts to Arthur and reasoned that, unlike in that case, these
officers “observed nothing suggesting that a drug transaction had taken place.”
Id. at 487. The officers were not on narcotics-surveillance duty and the train
station was not a high drug traffic area. Ibid. At most, they saw the defendant
carrying a paper bag in his waistband and had an inarticulate hunch that he
may have been engaged in illegal activity. Ibid. We underscored how they
failed to explain why, in their experience, that act alone suggested the
defendant was carrying drugs. Ibid.
Those decisions reveal a highly fact-intensive inquiry. Each case exists
on a spectrum of permissible and impermissible investigatory stops.
Ultimately, we must place ourselves in the shoes of a reasonable officer and
consider the knowledge available to Donaruma at the time he pulled defendant
over. Mann, 203 N.J. at 338; accord Terry, 392 U.S. at 21-22 (“[W]ould the
facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure . . . ‘warrant a
[person] of reasonable caution in the belief’ that the action taken was
appropriate?”). We discern from the record that Donaruma was aware of the
lawsuit between Fornaciari and Izzo. He also knew Fornaciari’s personnel file
had gone missing, and Izzo had the ability to access it. He further recognized
prosecutors could bring charges of official misconduct and misapplication of
entrusted property based on what he discovered in the course of his
investigation. He saw the video of defendant mailing the file and inscribing a
false return address on the package. As a result, he attempted to contact
defendant on multiple occasions -- even personally visiting her home -- to no
Based solely on the foregoing, however, we find Donaruma could not
have reasonably suspected defendant participated in a crime. The record
supports the trial judge’s finding that “the officers did not even know at the
time that a crime had occurred.” See Elders, 192 N.J. at 244 (“A trial court’s
findings should be disturbed only if they are so clearly mistaken ‘that the
interests of justice demand intervention and correction.’” (quoting Johnson,
42 N.J. at 162)). Before stopping defendant, the detectives did not interview
anyone besides Pietrefesa: not even Izzo. The record amply supports the
judge’s conclusion that, at the time of the stop, Donaruma was “still
investigating the matter to see if a felony had actually been committed,
whether by Izzo alone and/or by someone yet unknown, perhaps with the aid
Donaruma’s testimony on remand belies the State’s assertion that
Donaruma reasonably suspected defendant participated in a crime. When
asked whether defendant was the target of his investigation, he replied “[s]he
was not.” When probed as to whether she was even a suspect, he answered
“[s]he was not at that time.” For that reason, he explained how he did not stop
defendant with the intent of arresting her because he “had no reason to.” His
statements to defendant at the police station after their roadside encounter are
consistent with his testimony. Donaruma told defendant five times that she
was neither “the target” nor “the focus” of the investigation. Instead, he
explained that Izzo was “being investigated for official misconduct. . . . What
you are now is a participating contact, okay.” (emphasis added).
Donaruma’s statements reveal that Izzo was the object of the police’s
focus at the time of the stop. He testified they “were just doing an
investigation of Mr. Izzo at that point.” But, as to defendant, he stated, “[a]t
that point in time, I didn’t know what was in the package, that she put that
stuff in the package. She was just mailing the package.” It is obvious, then,
that Donaruma stopped defendant to develop his investigation into Izzo. He
was neither subjectively aware a crime had been committed nor suspicious of
defendant’s involvement in such a crime. At best, he had an “inarticulate
hunch,” but he could not -- and, unsurprisingly, did not -- reasonably consider
defendant to be a suspect. See Arthur, 149 N.J. at 8 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S.
From an objective perspective, defendant’s actions on the post office
surveillance footage -- her only link to the investigation to that point besides
her relationship with Izzo -- were not reasonably more consistent with guilt
than innocence. See Arthur, 149 N.J. at 11. Moreover, the police here did not
have a reliable tip concerning defendant’s commission of a specific crime.
Rather, they had a report from Pietrefesa that the personnel file mysteriously
returned to the construction office, as well as a suggestion from the assistant
prosecutor that the file’s removal could lead to charges “depending on . . . how
this envelope left the building.” That defendant did not respond to the
officers’ calls or visits does not alter our conclusion. To be sure, a blatant
attempt to hide from the police can augment suspicion. See State v. Valentine,
134 N.J. 536, 551 (1994) (finding stop-and-frisk was reasonable because,
among other things, the defendant “ducked behind a tree after seeing [a] police
vehicle”). However, the trial judge noted “[t]here was no specific testimony
setting forth” the conclusion that Donaruma became suspicious due to
defendant’s elusive behavior. The judge further found “Donaruma could not
recall if he left any voice messages,” and there was neither “evidence that
defendant received the business card . . . [nor] positive identification of the
woman in the window.”
Viewing the facts cumulatively, we cannot agree with the State that there
was reasonable suspicion “based on specific and articulable facts” of
defendant’s involvement in a crime. See Mann, 203 N.J. at 338 (quoting
Pineiro, 181 N.J. at 20). And, absent reasonable suspicion, Donaruma could
have furthered the investigation by conducting a field inquiry. See State v.
Rosario, 229 N.J. 263, 271 (2017) (“A field inquiry is essentially a voluntary
encounter between the police and a member of the public in which the police
ask questions and do not compel an individual to answer.”). To the extent
defendant still refused to speak with him but the information she possessed
was vital to his investigation, a subpoena would be the next step. See R. 1:9-1.
In other words, there were alternatives available to Donaruma short of
activating his overhead lights and pulling defendant over just to ask her
questions. A law enforcement officer cannot use an automobile stop merely
for the purpose of a police interview.
We reiterate that “our constitutional jurisprudence evinces a strong
preference for judicially issued warrants” and an investigatory stop is an
exception justified only by reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime.
Elders, 192 N.J. at 246. To validate such a stop, the State must proffer more
than disconnected facts supporting varying conclusions about a defendant’s
conduct; rather, the State should highlight specific and articulable facts which,
taken together with rational inferences from those facts, demonstrate how the
defendant’s actions were more consistent with guilt than innocence, thereby
amounting to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In short, an officer
cannot conduct an investigatory stop without observing a traffic violation or
having a reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity. We hold that the
State failed to meet its burden here. Because we have determined that the stop
was unconstitutional, we need not address defendant’s additional argument
that the scope of the stop was unreasonable.
The State and the Attorney General also argue that, even if the stop was
unconstitutional, defendant’s incriminating statement is admissible because it
was sufficiently attenuated from the stop. Specifically, they contend that, after
defendant told Donaruma she would speak with him in a more private location,
Donaruma’s repeated indications to her that she was free to leave constituted
intervening circumstances rendering her statements admissible. We disagree.
Though ordinarily we apply the exclusionary rule to the fruits of an
unlawful stop, we will not exclude evidence sufficiently attenuated from the
taint of the stop. State v. Worlock, 117 N.J. 596, 621 (1990) (relying on Wong
Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 486 (1963)). To determine whether a
statement is accordingly attenuated, we examine three factors: “(1) the
temporal proximity between the illegal conduct and the challenged evidence;
(2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the flagrancy and
purpose of the police misconduct.” State v. Williams, 192 N.J. 1, 15 (2007)
(quoting State v. Johnson, 118 N.J. 639, 653 (1990)); accord Brown v. Illinois,
422 U.S. 590, 603-04 (1975).
Because the length of time between the initial stop and the subsequent
statement can lead to ambiguity, it is the least important factor. State v. Shaw,
237 N.J. 588, 614-15 (2019) (“[A] long detention could suggest increasing
pressure or dissipation of the initial shock of arrest, and a short detention could
indicate the confession was a product of the initial shock or that the confession
was unrelated to the arrest.”). This factor also necessarily involves
consideration of the conditions of the unlawful detention. Id. at 615.
Next, we weigh the purported intervening circumstances, which “can be
the most important consideration.” Ibid. In response to an unconstitutional
stop, “the State should show some ‘demonstrably effective break in the chain
of events.’” Worlock, 117 N.J. at 623-24 (quoting Brown, 422 U.S. at 611
(Powell, J., concurring)). For example, we have found that resisting arrest and
eluding the police after an unconstitutional stop can constitute intervening acts
justifying admission of later-obtained evidence. See, e.g., Williams, 192 N.J.
at 16. Conversely, the United States Supreme Court reversed a conviction
based on an improperly admitted confession because the police’s Miranda
warnings were insufficient to purge the taint of an illegal arrest. Dunaway v.
New York, 442 U.S. 200, 218-19 (1979).
Last, the flagrancy and purpose of the arrest “is particularly relevant” to
determining whether evidence is the fruit of the arrest. Shaw, 237 N.J. at 615.
For instance, we may favor exclusion in spite of intervening circumstances
where police conduct was “calculated to cause surprise, fright, and confusion.”
Brown, 422 U.S. at 605. However, where the police acted in good faith or
their “conduct was more casual than calculating,” this factor weighs in favor of
admission. Worlock, 117 N.J. at 624.
As applied here, we hold defendant’s statement to Donaruma was not so
attenuated from the initial stop as to avoid exclusion. Specifically, we find the
first factor favors admission. Approaching an hour, their encounter was
somewhat long. However, under these circumstances, the length of the stop
more likely suggests that the initial shock of the stop had worn off, as there is
no indication in the record that increasing pressure from Donaruma yielded
defendant’s statement. Indeed, Donaruma was not overbearing, allowed
defendant to move to a less conspicuous location, and never asked her to leave
her vehicle. Yet, this is the least significant factor.
More importantly, the second factor weighs in defendant’s favor.
Donaruma’s repeated indications that she was free to leave by no means
purged the taint of the initial stop. His assurances did not change the character
of the conversation -- which was plainly the product of the initial stop – to
arise by virtue of defendant’s own volition. There were no intervening
circumstances or events between the stop and defendant’s statement, such as
defendant seeking counsel. Instead, Donaruma’s admonitions are similar to
the Miranda warnings the United States Supreme Court has already ruled to be
insufficient to break the chain of causation. See Dunaway, 442 U.S. at 218-19.
Finally, we find the third factor to be in equipoise. While we do not
believe Donaruma’s conduct was calculated or purposefully unconstitutional,
we do note that, by his own admission, Donaruma pulled defendant over
without any suspicion of her participation in a crime. That type of
constitutional violation cannot support the admission of what it may later
On balance, then, we hold the factors weigh in favor of exclusion. We
cannot condone the admission of evidence stemming from the unconstitutional
detention of a person where the police simply state the detainee is free to
leave. In our view, that is a bridge too far. We therefore apply the
exclusionary rule to defendant’s roadside statement. And, having disposed of
defendant’s statement implicating Izzo and leading to his arrest, we reverse her
convictions for false reporting and hindering apprehension, which were based
entirely on that statement.
Finally, defendant asks us to reverse her burglary conviction. She
asserts the extensive testimony at trial concerning her roadside statement, in
which she lied and falsely implicated Izzo, irreparably damaged her credibility
with the jury. She claims the admission of that statement made it impossible
to rebut the State’s assertion that she had entered Izzo’s truck without
Because defendant initially failed to challenge the admission of her
roadside statement on Fourth Amendment grounds, we review its application
to her burglary charge for plain error. R. 2:10-2. We must disregard any
unchallenged errors or omissions unless they are “clearly capable of producing
an unjust result.” Ibid. We have noted that is a “high bar,” State v.
Santamaria, 236 N.J. 390, 404 (2019), requiring reversal only where the
possibility of an injustice is “real” and “sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt
as to whether the error led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have
reached,” State v. Macon, 57 N.J. 325, 336 (1971).
To prove burglary, the State must show that defendant entered a
“structure” with the purpose to commit an offense therein, unless she was
“licensed or privileged” to enter. N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2(a)(1); see also N.J.S.A.
2C:18-1 (providing that “structure” includes a car). Consequently, permission
to enter a vehicle negates an element of burglary, unless the defendant exceeds
that permission by committing an offense therein. See State ex rel. Qarmout v.
Cavallo, 340 N.J. Super. 365, 368-69 (App. Div. 2001). Yet, the defendant
will not be guilty if the defendant committed that offense by accident. See
N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2(a) (requiring intent to commit an offense while entering a
structure to prove burglary).
Defendant’s guilt, therefore, hinged on whether she had permission to
enter Izzo’s truck. While Izzo testified that he never gave such permission,
defendant informed police that, on the night of the alleged burglary, Izzo told
her “you know where the shit is, my truck is always open, go get it.” She
stated she had left items such as “clothing” and “a little umbrella” in his truck.
As she explained to police, she took the personnel file by accident because it
was among her personal effects: “I thought I was taking my possessions.” If
the jury believed defendant’s version of events, then it would not have found
her guilty of burglary.
Yet, this was unlikely in light of the State’s exploitation of
contradictions between defendant’s roadside statement and the statement she
gave to police on October 2. The prosecutor’s opening statement was a
lengthy indictment of defendant’s credibility, pitting her against both
Donaruma and Izzo. The prosecutor highlighted six contradictions between
the two stories defendant gave police, including whether (1) defendant and
Izzo were still dating at the time she mailed the package; (2) defendant herself
mailed the package; (3) she did so at Izzo’s behest; (4) they drafted the letter
to Fornaciari together; (5) she intentionally listed the wrong return address;
and (6) she sent the package to get Fornaciari and Stockelberg or Izzo in
trouble. The prosecutor further elicited those contradictions through
Donaruma’s account of the roadside statement given at trial and by playing
defendant’s recorded statement on October 2 for the jury.
The prosecutor recognized the connection between the burglary charge
and defendant’s credibility. As she told the jury in her closing,
So, what do we have here? You have Phil Izzo’s statement and her statements about the truck.
. . . .
Who is being honest here? And so, finally, the officers that had enough and they said to [defendant], tell us the truth. Tell us the whole truth. And finally, after four hours, she says, well, I took it. I took a package. I took the papers but I didn’t know I had them. You see? Four hours to get to that. She knew she had it the whole time. She knew what she took. She knew when she took it and she knew it was wrong and she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Why? Because she doesn’t like to tell the truth. She has a hard time and that’s okay, ladies and gentlemen. That’s your job. That’s your job now. You get to determine how truthful she is.
Accordingly, by underscoring defendant’s lack of credibility, the prosecutor
effectively rebutted defendant’s claim that she had permission to enter Izzo’s
truck, and the jury found her guilty of burglary.
Nevertheless, additional facts in the record support defendant’s claim
that she had permission to enter the truck. Izzo left his truck unlocked and
failed to report to the police that it had been burgled. Phone records indicate
they had lengthy communications both before and after the day of the alleged
burglary, perhaps, in part, to arrange for defendant to collect her belongings.
Moreover, Izzo rarely patronized the bar in question, making it unlikely
defendant would know to find him there and break into his truck unless he
informed her of his plans. In addition, Izzo had his own credibility issues. He
turned out to have removed Fornaciari’s personnel file from the construction
office without permission. He lied to Pietrefesa by telling him the personnel
file was missing.
Had the trial court initially excluded defendant’s roadside statement,
defendant’s credibility would have remained intact because the State would
never have had the opportunity to highlight the falsehoods she told Donaruma.
In what then amounts to a credibility battle between defendant and Izzo -- who
has credibility issues -- she had a robust defense to the burglary charge.
Therefore, in our view, the admission of the roadside statement was “clearly
capable of producing an unjust result,” R. 2:10-2, because there is reasonable
doubt as to whether the jury would have found defendant guilty of burglary in
its absence, see Macon, 57 N.J. at 336. We do not pass judgment on the merits
of whether defendant burgled Izzo’s truck. We hold only that the admission of
her roadside statement substantially diminished the chances she could receive
a fair trial. Accordingly, having already discarded the roadside statement as
the product of an illegal stop, we reverse defendant’s conviction for third
Outcome: We agree with the trial judge’s determination that the investigatory stop
was unconstitutional. We therefore affirm the Appellate Division’s reversal of
defendant’s convictions for hindering apprehension and false reporting. We
further reverse defendant’s conviction for burglary, and remand for
proceedings consistent with this opinion.