State v. Singh, 012121 NJSC, A-37-19

Docket NºA-37-19
Opinion JudgeFERNANDEZ-VINA, JUSTICE
Party NameState of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Amrit Singh, a/k/a Andy Singh, Defendant-Appellant.
AttorneyMargaret McLane, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Margaret McLane, of counsel and on the briefs). Nancy A. Hulett, Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Yolanda Ciccone, Middlesex County Prosecu...
Judge PanelFERNANDEZ-VINA, J., JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, dissenting, CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA'S opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a dissent, in which JUSTICES ALBIN and PIERRE-LOUIS join. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON and SOLOMON join in JU...
Case DateJanuary 21, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of New Jersey

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

Amrit Singh, a/k/a Andy Singh, Defendant-Appellant.

No. A-37-19

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 21, 2021

Argued September 29, 2020

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Margaret McLane, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Margaret McLane, of counsel and on the briefs).

Nancy A. Hulett, Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Yolanda Ciccone, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney; Nancy A. Hulett, of counsel and on the briefs).

Frank Muroski, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Frank Muroski, of counsel and on the brief).

FERNANDEZ-VINA, J., writing for the Court.

The Court considers whether a detective's testimony at the trial of defendant Amrit Singh requires reversal of defendant's convictions. Specifically, the Court considers whether it was plain error for the trial court to allow the detective to make two references to "the defendant" in narrating the surveillance footage of a robbery for the jury and whether the detective's testimony concerning defendant's sneakers violated N.J.R.E. 701, when the sneakers and the video were both admitted into evidence.

In January 2015, a man entered a gas station store wielding a machete and told the cashier to give him the money. The man took the money and fled. The cashier described the man as wearing dark clothes and gloves. The events were captured on the gas station's surveillance video, which police retrieved that night.

Officers dispatched to the scene noticed and chased an individual in dark clothing. After losing sight of the suspect, one of the officers found an individual -- later identified as defendant -- wearing dark clothing, sweating, and breathing heavily in a nearby backyard. Defendant resisted arrest. Detective Jorge Quesada, who also responded to the dispatch, joined the effort to subdue defendant. Investigators found a machete and the robbery proceeds in the area where defendant was arrested. Police recovered a sweatshirt, one glove, and sneakers with a white sole and stripes from defendant.

At defendant's trial, the cashier narrated the gas station's surveillance footage for the jury. Detective Quesada testified next, and he also narrated the footage, which he reviewed prior to testifying. During the narration, he referred to an individual depicted in the video as "the defendant" twice. Defense counsel did not object. While showing surveillance footage, the prosecutor asked about "the defendant's shoes." Detective Quesada described the shoes as having white soles and three white stripes. The prosecutor next showed the detective a pair of sneakers admitted into evidence and Detective Quesada testified, "[t]hese were the sneakers that the defendant was wearing at the time of his arrest." Defense counsel objected, but the trial judge permitted Detective Quesada to testify about the similarities between the sneakers he saw on the video and the sneakers worn by defendant at the time of his arrest.

Defendant was convicted of first-degree robbery and other offenses. On appeal, he challenged Detective Quesada's testimony as "improper lay-witness opinion testimony as to the content of the surveillance video and the identity of the robber." The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence. The Court granted certification limited to the lay-witness opinion issue. 240 N.J. 259 (2019).

HELD: The detective should not have referenced defendant in his summary of the surveillance footage. Here, however, that fleeting reference did not amount to plain error in light of the other evidence produced. And the detective's testimony regarding the sneakers was proper. He saw the sneakers on the video prior to testifying and had firsthand knowledge of what the sneakers looked like because he saw defendant wearing them on the night of his arrest. N.J.R.E. 701 requires only that testimony be rationally based on the witness's perception and that such testimony help the jury.

1. N.J.R.E. 701 governs the admission of a lay witness's opinion testimony. The first prong of that Rule requires the testimony to be based on the witness's "perception," which rests on the acquisition of knowledge through use of one's senses. The second requirement of N.J.R.E. 701 is that lay-witness opinion testimony be limited to testimony that will assist the trier of fact either by helping to explain the witness's testimony or by shedding light on the determination of a disputed factual issue. (pp. 17-18)

2. The Court reviews in detail cases in which it considered police officer opinion testimony. In State v. McLean, an officer saw the defendant hand some small items to a second person, who then handed defendant what appeared to be money. 205 N.J. 438, 443-44 (2011). At trial, the officer testified as to what he saw during the surveillance, identified the defendant by name, and stated he saw "hand-to-hand drug transactions." Id. at 445. The McLean Court concluded that the officer's testimony regarding drug transactions was improper "both because it was an expression of a belief in defendant's guilt and because it presumed to give an opinion on matters that were not beyond the understanding of the jury." Id. at 463. In State v. Lazo, the Court noted that "lay witness testimony is permissible where the witness has had sufficient contact with the defendant to achieve a level of familiarity that renders the lay opinion helpful." 209 N.J. 9, 22 (2012). The Lazo Court held that an officer's lay opinion testimony as to whether the defendant's arrest photo closely resembled a composite sketch of the defendant should not have been allowed because it was not based on the officer's prior knowledge, but rather "stemmed entirely from the victim's description." Id. at 23-24. (pp. 18-21)

3. In contrast, a police officer's lay opinion testimony was found admissible in State v. LaBrutto, 114 N.J. 187, 191 (1989). Noting that the officer conducted his own investigation of an automobile accident, the LaBrutto Court held that his testimony "was rationally based on what he observed . . . and it was helpful to the jury's full comprehension of the facts in question." Id. at 202. Significantly, the Court found no merit in the position that the officer's opinion on the point of impact invaded the province of the jury or was "unnecessary because the average juror can readily determine the point of impact from the officer's description of the physical evidence." Id. at 199. (pp. 21-22)

4. Here, Detective Quesada referred to defendant as "the defendant" only twice in narrating the surveillance footage, and defense counsel did not object those references. Although those references were error, they were not so prejudicial as to meet the plain error standard, in light of the circumstantial evidence of the robber's identification. The Court stresses, however, that in similar narrative situations, a reference to "defendant," which can be interpreted to imply a defendant's guilt, should be avoided in favor of neutral, purely descriptive terminology. (pp. 22-24)

5. Admitting Detective Quesada's testimony about the sneakers was not improper. N.J.R.E. 701 does not require the lay witness to offer something the jury does not possess or prohibit testimony when the evidence in question has been admitted. Detective Quesada's testimony satisfied N.J.R.E. 701 as written. First, he had first-hand knowledge of what the sneakers looked like; therefore, his lay witness opinion as to the similarities between the sneakers from the footage and the sneakers he saw that night was rationally based on his perception, in accordance with Lazo. Second, his testimony was helpful to the jury even though the jury may have been able to evaluate whether the sneakers were similar to those in the video, in keeping with LaBrutto. Detective Quesada's testimony did not include an ultimate determination as to defendant's guilt, unlike in McClean, and it assisted the jury in determining the robber's identity. (pp. 24-27)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, dissenting, stresses that the Court has warned in earlier decisions of the dangers of lay opinion testimony offered by police officers and opines that Detective Quesada's lay opinion testimony unfairly bolstered and infected the identification and infringed on the exclusive domain of the jury as the ultimate trier of fact. As to the detective's use of "the defendant," the dissent observes that the jury must have inferred that Detective Quesada either thought defendant was guilty or had additional knowledge, inadmissible in court, that implicated defendant; in either case, it was wrong to offer such an opinion. In the dissent's view, further, the detective should not have testified about the contents of the video because he had no direct personal knowledge beyond that of anyone else who could look at the video at any point in time, and he should not have been allowed to comment on similarities in clothing, because the jury did not need help comparing the appearance of a pair of shoes entered into evidence to shoes on a video. In a case where identity was the issue, the missteps here easily could have swayed the jury and are not harmless, in the dissent's view.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA'S opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a dissent, in which JUSTICES ALBIN and PIERRE-LOUIS join.

OPINION

FERNANDEZ-VINA, JUSTICE

In this case, the Court must decide whether a detective's testimony at the trial of...

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