Drug Arrest & Conviction Issues: Proper Search and Seizure | State v. Sanchez
In this appeal the Courts were requested to look at several issues. IN this blog we will discuss the right of the police to enter an accessible, open, unlocked, multi-story apartment building that has public hallways and stairs as well as private locked areas accessible only to the tenants. The court found the police officer’s actions appropriate under the totality of the circumstances when they observed a significant volume of individuals entering and exiting the building in question. They stopped one of the citizens, without arrest and asked what they were doing. The drug purchaser told the plain clothed police officer that he had just purchased drugs from someone on the third floor. Only then, after the police set up additional investigative surveillance, did they enter the building and walk to the third floor. It was there that the police officer observed a ‘drug transaction’ taking place with the defendant who was already known to the arresting officer from prior drug arrests. The court stated:
As a threshold matter, in reviewing a trial court’s decision on a motion to suppress evidence, we “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. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). We “‘should give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the ‘feel’ of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.'” Id. at 244 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). The findings below should not be disturbed merely because we may have reached a different conclusion. Ibid. On the other hand, if the trial court acts under a misconception of the applicable law, then we must adjudicate the matter in light of the applicable law in order to avoid a manifest denial of justice. State v. Steele, 92 N.J. Super. 498, 507 (App. Div. 1966). Here, the trial court found that the officers did not need a warrant to enter the building because the doors were unlocked and open, making it accessible to the public. Specifically, the court found that the detectives observed several individuals entering the building not using keys and that James, familiar with this building, had never encountered a locked entrancedoor. Indeed, none of the three men arrested, including defendant, resided in the apartment building, yet had easy access to the common hallways and landings. We agree with the trial judge that the police officers’ entry into the building was lawful.
In State v. Smith, 37 N.J. 481 (1962), cert. denied, 374 U.S. 835, 83 S. Ct. 1879, 10 L. Ed. 2d 1055 (1963), the Court found that a police officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment when he enters a common passageway of a multi-family building pursuant to an investigation, id. at 496, and uses his or her own senses to detect criminal activity in a protected area, id. at 497. Similarly, in State v. Jordan, 115 N.J. Super. 73 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 59 N.J. 293 (1971), we found that an officer did not commit an unlawful trespass when he observed criminal activity in the hallway of a hotel. Id. at 75-76. In contrast, we noted that if police officers were entering the room of the defendant, then they would have committed an unlawful trespass, rendering the seizure and subsequent arrest invalid. Id. at 75 (citation omitted). However, we determined that the defendant’s seizure and arrest was valid because the officer was lawfully standing in the common hallway and observed criminal activity in plain view.
Id. at 75-76 (citing Smith, supra, 37 N.J. at 495-96). Defendant relies on State v. Jefferson, 413 N.J. Super. 344 (App. Div. 2010), but that case is in apposite. There, we held that evidence seized from defendant’s apartment building should be suppressed because the officers, without a warrant, unlawfully entered the premises and conducted an investigation. Id. at 352. In Jefferson, supra, the door to the apartment building was kept locked and only the tenants and the landlord had access to the two-story building. Id. at 350. We found that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment by trying to wedge herself into the doorway of defendant’s multi-family dwelling without either a warrant or benefit of an exception to the warrant requirement. Id. at 352.
Here, in contrast, the four-or five-story multi-family apartment building had several apartments on each floor and access to the common areas was open to the public by virtue of the main door being unlocked and unsecured. Members of the public were seen entering and leaving the building over an approximately forty-minute span of time and defendant himself, as well as his cohorts, were present therein although non-residents. Under the circumstances, defendant could not have entertained any reasonable expectation of privacy in the area where he was conducting drug deals.
In other words, the key to the entitlement of the officers to be on the third floor common area observing events that took place therein, had to do with the general public access to that area which the court found was readily available to all because the front doors were open, and there was a great deal of public traffic coming and going. As a result, this defendant did not have any reasonable expectation of privacy!