CAN THE POLICE COME INTO MY HOTEL ROOM??
State v. Phillips New Jersey Appellate Division November 18, 2019 (Not Approved for Publication) Decision: Remand to trial judge for further hearing
Issue: When and how can the police come into my hotel room?? It is a factually specific question based on the following law–
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
As we noted in Alvarez, while these so-called exigency factors “can be articulated with disarming ease, their application to a concrete factual pattern is not without difficulty.” 238 N.J. Super. at 568. The test is “highly fact sensitive.” Ibid. (quoting State v. Lewis, 116 N.J. 477, 487 (1989)). We further cautioned that, “[i]n making these judgments, our review” of the police conduct “must be in a commonsense and realistic fashion.” Id. at 569.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Walker is particularly instructive in describing the myriad of exigency factors that may arise. 213 N.J. 281 (2013). In that case, police officers observed the defendant “smoking a marijuana cigarette during a brief interaction with him, while the apartment door was open.” Id. at 284. The Court reiterated the well-established principle that a warrantless arrest in an individual’s home is presumptively unreasonable and emphasized that the warrant requirement is strictly applied to physical entry into the home because the primary goal of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution is to protect individuals from unreasonable home intrusions. Id. at 289. The Court thus required a showing of exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless home arrest. Id. at 291. The Court further observed that “the application of the doctrine of exigent circumstances demands a fact-sensitive, objective analysis.” Id. at 291–92 (quoting State v. DeLuca, 168 N.J. 626, 632 (2001)).
To assist in that analytical process, the Court identified some of the many possible exigency factors that might exist, including the degree of urgency and the amount of time necessary to obtain a warrant; the reasonable belief that the evidence was about to be lost, destroyed, or removed from the scene; the severity or seriousness of the offense involved; the possibility that a suspect was armed and dangerous; and the strength or weakness of the underlying probable cause determination. [Id. at 292 (quoting DeLuca, 168 N.J. at 632–33).]
The Court added that “[t]he possible destruction of evidence is of great concern when dealing with controlled dangerous substances because ‘drugs may be easily destroyed by flushing them down a toilet or rinsing them down a drain.'” Ibid. (quoting Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 461 (2011)).
Turning to the particular circumstances in the case before it, the Court deemed it to be a “significant event” that defendant appeared at the door smoking a marijuana cigarette. Id. at 295–96. “Defendant was standing inside his apartment.” Ibid. Nonetheless, defendant and the officers were within inches of each other, leading the Court to conclude that, “[c]learly, defendant must have been aware that the officers knew that he was committing an offense. Such observations gave rise to probable cause and authorized the officers to arrest defendant for the disorderly persons offense.” Ibid.
This first “significant event” is similar to the facts in the present case given the overpowering smell of burnt marijuana emanating from a small hotel room. It bears noting, however, that in Walker, there was a “second significant event” attributed to the defendant’s reaction to the police presence. Id. at 296. Specifically, Walker discarded the marijuana cigarette, retreated into his apartment, and attempted to close the door. Ibid. The defendant’s evasive conduct, the Court noted, compelled the police to act to prevent defendant from disposing of the marijuana cigarette or eluding the officers. Ibid.
Considering those circumstances, the Court found the officers’ warrantless entry was objectively reasonable, “justified pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.” Id. at 298. In reaching this conclusion, the Court emphasized that this exception “did not authorize a broad search of the apartment, but justified a limited entry necessary to arrest defendant for the disorderly persons offense and to retrieve the marijuana cigarette.” Ibid. (emphasis added).
We recognize that the defendant’s flight into the room made the situation in Walker more urgent than what occurred in the present case. However, other New Jersey precedents have sustained police entry into a home or hotel room in circumstances where occupants did not engage in such provocative actions in response to police appearing at their door.
In State v. Stanton, police responded to a telephone call from an anonymous informant reporting that drug dealing was occurring in a specific room in a motel in Asbury Park. 265 N.J. Super. 383, 384 (App. Div. 1993). Police went to the room, knocked on the door, and identified themselves as police officers. Id. at 385. One of the occupants pulled back the drapes to the window, and from the vantage point of the hallway, an officer observed a plastic bag containing a white powdery substance on top of a microwave oven in his direct line of sight. Ibid. The officer recognized the substance as cocaine and ordered the other officers to enter the room and seize the drugs. Ibid. Once inside, the police found sixty bags containing cocaine, two handguns, a box of ammunition, and a large knife. Ibid.
The trial court suppressed the handgun and illicit drugs, holding that the officers’ warrantless entry was unlawful. Ibid. We granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and reversed. Id. at 384. We held that although the exigent circumstances that justified entry into the motel room were “police-created,” they arose as a result of reasonable police investigative conduct. Id. at 386. Implicit in that holding is that the circumstances were sufficiently exigent to justify the entry.
We reached a similar result in Alvarez. In that case, police received a report of drug activity occurring on the fourth floor of a hotel in Atlantic City. 238 N.J. Super. at 563. When police went to the hotel to investigate, the desk clerk advised them that there had been numerous telephone calls and “foot traffic” to and from Room 402—the only room occupied on the fourth floor. Ibid. Four officers went to the room. Ibid. After knocking on the door, one of the officers, in a falsetto voice, identified himself as the maid. Ibid. When the door to the room was opened, police observed narcotics and drug paraphernalia. Ibid. They then entered the room, seized the contraband, and arrested the occupants. Ibid.
The trial judge suppressed the evidence. Id. at 564. We granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and reversed. Id. at 572. We synthesized the exigency factors discussed in earlier precedents and concluded that the State “met its heavy burden of establishing that exigent circumstances existed and that they were not impermissibly created by the police.” Id. at 568–69.